Judge sides with Wyoming in wolf case

Dec 17, 2010

Nearly a year after the first arguments were heard, a federal Judge in Wyoming has ordered the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to reexamine the validity of that state’s wolf management plan. The suit was originally brought in response to a 2008 decision by USFWS officials that called into question Wyoming’s ability to adequately manage its growing wolf population.

When northern gray wolves were initially removed from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the spring of 2008, each of the states that then contained known wolf populations, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, were tasked with developing wolf management plans designed to maintain a stable population. Initially, plans from all three states were approved by USFWS. The three plans were similar in that they all specified population levels agreed upon by USFWS, and specified how those levels would be maintained. Wyoming’s plan, however, differed in one aspect. It called for a dual status regarding wolves, based upon their location. In the region surrounding Yellowstone National Park, wolves would carry a trophy/game status, similar to those used by Idaho and Montana. In the remainder of the state, however, wolves would be classified as a predator, placing them on par with coyotes and other predatory animals. Wildlife activists protested, claiming that Wyoming’s plan amounted to a ‘shoot on sight policy.’ When these same activists sued to have wolves returned to endangered status later that same year, Judge Donald Molloy specifically credited the Wyoming plan as the primary driver behind his decision to re-list the species. Following this decision, USFWS rescinded their earlier approval of the plan, denying it in order to move forward with delisting in the other two states. Wyoming filed suit, claiming that the decision leaving them out of the delisting effort was political in nature and lacked a scientific basis.

Ultimately, District Judge Alan B. Johnson agreed with this opinion, stating in his decision; “There is no scientific or commercial data that suggest the state’s dual classification of wolves, in and of itself, cannot meet, accomplish, and maintain the identified recovery goals in the (Greater Yellowstone Area), including northwestern Wyoming.” Though Wyoming officials are encouraged by the ruling, John Emmerich, deputy director for the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, cautions that the ruling does not ensure acceptance of the original plan. “All (the judge) has said is that it’s arbitrary and capricious to say that dual status is unacceptable,” says Emmerich. “(USFWS) now has to determine what would be an adequate plan. The ball’s been thrown back in their court.” USFWS officials have not yet indicated how they will proceed following the decision, but they have pledged to work closely with Wyoming to find a solution acceptable to all sides. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has stated that Wyoming is open to discussing the issue, but remains adamant that the state must retain the ability to manage wolves outside the recovery area as it sees fit. “The only way we can adjust our plan any more than we already have at this point is by changing the state law,” adds Emmerich.

The decision comes amidst increased political attention to the wolf debate at both the federal and state levels. Following Molloy’s order to reinstate ESA protections for wolves last August, officials from all three states have been actively seeking ways to return management responsibilities to the state level. Following an unsuccessful round of meetings between Department of Interior (DOI) officials and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, Otter made good on his threat to halt state agency enforcement of federal wolf laws, forcing the federal government to foot that bill themselves. Interior officials have also expressed a strong desire to see ESA protections lifted for the predator, which has long since exceeded the recovery goals initially set following their 1994 release. In a recent meeting in Colorado with governors from all three states, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar illustrated that point while seeking a solution that all parties can live with. “The successful recovery of the northern gray wolf is a stunning example of how the Endangered Species Act can work to keep imperiled animals from sliding into extinction,” he said. However, USFWS has now been turned back by Molloy on two consecutive attempts to de-list the species, and both state and federal officials see challenges to future attempts. Both sides are hopeful that congress will intervene with a solution before the close of this year’s session.

In a bid to meet that goal, a group of eight congressional representatives, all from western states, introduced a bill on Dec. 2 that would explicitly exclude gray wolves from ESA protections. Called the State Sovereignty Wildlife Management Act, the bill specifies that “The inclusion of the gray wolf on lists of endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act… shall have no force or effect.” Similar legislation in the senate, introduced in September by Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, proposes to lift ESA protections on wolves in Montana and Idaho. However, in a letter written to the governors and Salazar at their recent meeting, both senators made it clear that cooperation between DOI and the states is a necessary step if congress is to take action. “It is clear that a plan that can be endorsed by the three states and the Department of Interior is a necessary precondition for congressional action this year,” read the letter. “Our ranchers and big game hunters have waited long enough for this matter to be settled, and we hope you can expeditiously find a solution.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent