Judge upholds wolf hunts

Sep 16, 2011

As the wolf battles rage on, a judge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied environmentalists requests for an emergency injunction to halt wolf hunting in Idaho and Montana while the groups press their legal case against Congress.

More than 1,500 wolves in Idaho and Montana were removed from the U.S. endangered species list, giving the two states control over the animals, in legislation attached to a stopgap budget bill Congress approved in April.

The delisting came amid a legal battle between environmentalists and the U.S. government over whether wolves had successfully recovered in the Northern Rockies.

Environmental groups sought to overturn the congressional ac tion, which marked the first time an animal has been delisted through legislation. Environmentalists argued that Congress overstepped its authority in doing so.

A federal judge earlier this month sided with the Obama administration, which argued Congress had the authority to make the decision.

WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others sought to restore federal safeguards to wolves by petitioning the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On August 13, those groups asked the court to stay wolf hunting and trapping planned in Idaho and Montana until the case was decided on its merits. The request was denied earlier this month.

Wolf hunts began Aug. 30 in Idaho and Sept. 3 in Montana.

Ranchers welcome the hunts, citing an increase in livestock depredation by wolves of 17 percent over the last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

In Idaho there are an estimated 1,000 wolves and state wildlife managers have not put a number on licenses. However they do plan to keep the population above 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs. Idaho Fish and Game Director, Virgil Moore said he would like to see hunters and trappers take 300 to 400 wolves during the season, and the department has offered a longer season with a two wolf limit.

During the first two days licenses were available in Montana, hunters bought over 2,000. The state’s Wildlife Commission released a quota number for 220 wolves during the hunting season. The season will close when the quota is met. If it is not met, the hunting season may be extended through December 31.

There is concern of a possible loophole in the hunting regulations that would allow environmentalists to help fill the quotas without killing a wolf. The regulations allow a hunter to shoot an animal, and then leave it if they don’t want the hide or skull. The provision was added to protect hunters who fear wolves carry diseases, in hopes that they would still want to shoot them. The concern is that an environmentalist can buy a tag, say they filled, and no one will be any wiser.

The current regulations say that hunters must validate and tag their wolf kill and report it within 12 hours. They only need to show the hide and head to state officials if they are planning to keep it. They also have to report where the wolf was killed. According to state wildlife officials, this will help with investigations if the report seems fraudulent.

Despite the fact that the hunts will go on, wildlife advocates are continuing their fight urging a federal appeals panel to restore endangered species protections for wolves. The groups argue the judicial branch needs to “zealously guard” against a move by Congress that lifted protections in defiance of earlier court rulings, according to the Associated Press. A November hearing in the case is expected.

While Idaho and Montana begin their hunting season, other states continue their battle for a delisting.
There are approximately 3,200 wolves in Minnesota and about 700 each in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. They are currently off limits to hunting except in Minnesota where federal trappers are allowed to kill wolves near where livestock or pets have been killed.

The USFWS has issued proposed regulations (for a third time) to remove the WGL population of gray wolves from the endangered species list, since the WGL wolf numbers exceed recovery goals by 600 to 1,000 percent. But the proposed delisting rule includes a nasty surprise. It states there are two separate wolf species in the WGL region—gray wolves (Canis lupus) and eastern wolves (Canis lycaon). The USFWS does not know how many of each roam the region, and until the numbers are in, the delisting will be delayed.

“This ‘two species’ finding is a trick deal which undermines needed WGL wolf delisting,” stated Bill Horn, U.S. Sportsman’s Alliance Director of Federal Affairs. “Since the USFWS acknowledges it does not know how many of the nearly identical eastern wolves (C. lycaon) are present in the WGL region, the agency cannot scientifically demonstrate that gray wolf (C. lupis) numbers do in fact meet recovery goals. Animal rights opponents of wolf delisting (and state management) will jump all over this fatal flaw in their next round of federal court filings.”
As if that is not enough wolf drama, just across the border, Mexican wildlife officials plan to reintroduce a rare species of gray wolf.

Their plan is to release five endangered Mexican gray wolves this month in northeastern Sonora, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. In 2010, Mexican officials pinpointed a release in the Sierra San Luis mountain range that runs from the Chihuahua-Sonora-New Mexico border, an easy hike across the border for a wolf. According to USFWS spokesman Tom Buckley, any wolves that cross the border into the United States would be considered fully protected endangered species.

Wildlife managers and ranchers in the two states want to know whether the wolves will be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Or will they have the same "nonessential, experimental" designation as wolves released as part of the reintroduction effort in New Mexico and Arizona?

There are also questions about how the wolves will be detected and monitored if they cross the international border, and how nuisance and livestock depredation incidents in the U.S. will be investigated if they involve the wolves from Mexico.

"When this came up two years ago, we raised some questions that really were never answered and so now I guess we start over again," said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "There's a lot of concern because there's a lot of stuff we just don't know."

According to Arizona Game and Fish, all five wolves will wear tracking collars when released. The Mexican government plans to tell the USFWS if the tracking data shows that a wolf has crossed the border.—Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor