States await wolf case ruling

Jul 2, 2010

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy will not indicate exactly when he will rule on a renewed attempt by environmentalists to protect gray wolves in Idaho and Montana as endangered species, but both sides of the controversy hope he will decide the issue before the hunting of the predators resumes in both states this fall.

Molloy heard arguments in the case on June 15 in Missoula, MT, after the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice and Natural Resources Defense Council sued the federal government to protest the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) decision in April 2009 to designate Northern Rockies wolves as distinct and remove them from the Endangered Species List.

The U.S., Idaho and Montana governments, Sportsmen for Fish & Game, and the Safari Club oppose the lawsuit.

USFWS allowed wildlife officials in Idaho and Montana to manage the wolves through hunts, but declined to remove their endangered species protection in Wyoming, where the state’s law is considered a threat to the predators’ survival. Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, but since have grown to more than 1,700 in the Northern Rockies following a reintroduction program in the mid-1990s.

Environmentalists argued before Molloy that the entire Northern Rockies wolf population must be listed as endangered if a portion is considered threatened, not split the level of protection between states. A Justice Department attorney countered that wolves will continue to survive under state management. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have approved the USFWS decision.

Both sides say Molloy’s decision could shape whether the government can use political considerations, such as state laws and boundaries, in determining where and how species can be listed under the federal wildlife protection law. Molloy said he was having difficulty accepting the Endangered Species Act allowing Wyoming wolves to be separated from the rest of the Northern Rockies population.

At the end of 2009, there were at least 843 wolves in Idaho, 524 in Montana and 320 in Wyoming in addition to more in parts of Oregon and Washington. Idaho’s wolf hunt last year ended with 185 wolves killed; Montana had 73 killed.

Idaho and Montana attorneys told Molloy their state laws and regulations require them to manage viable wolf populations. Both states may expand their quotas and tactics for this year’s hunt. Many ranchers and hunters favor reducing wolf packs to lower losses of livestock and big game, such as elk, which are prey for the wolves.

Both plaintiffs and defendants want Molloy to grant a summary judgment to end the court case before it goes to trial, but the judge has not indicated exactly when he will make a ruling. He allowed the Montana and Idaho wolf hunts to proceed last fall, but is still considering whether the federal government properly delisted the predators.

Wyoming officials have launched their own lawsuit against USFWS for rejecting their wolf management plan. That case had hearings in February and is still awaiting a decision. The Wyoming wolf management plan designates nearly 90 percent of the state a "predator zone" in which gray wolves can be shot on sight without a license any time of the year.

Wolves were nearly wiped out by trapping and poisoning in the lower 48 states in the 1930s. Canadian wolves started recolonizing parts of northwest Montana and Idaho in the early 1980s. In 1994 and 1995, federal wildlife officials transplanted Canadian wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park. Federal officials set a recovery goal of 1,500 wolves in the Midwest, but only 300 in the Rocky Mountains.

"By every biological measure, the region’s gray wolf population is fully recovered," an April USFWS report issued in April said. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent