Lawsuit challenges WY wolf management

Dec 30, 2013

In a lawsuit heard in federal district court on Dec. 17, Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and several other organizations are seeking to reinstate federal protections for Wyoming wolves under the Endangered Species Act. If successful, the suit would reverse a 2012 decision placing control of the state’s wolf population in the hands of Wyoming officials, and return them to federal oversight.

The groups are critical of Wyoming’s use of a hunting season to manage wolf populations, as well as the state’s “dual status” management plan, which classifies wolves differently based upon location. While wolves in the northwest corner of the state are classified as trophy game animals, and subject to a seasonal hunt, wolves residing in the remainder of the state are listed as predators, a classification that allows them to be shot on sight, similar to coyotes.

“The extreme hostility toward wolves demonstrated by some who participated in this fall’s Wyoming wolf hunt shows why adequate legal protections are especially important for wolves in Wyoming,” said Earthjustice Attorney Tim Preso in a recent CBD press release. “We are asking the court to hold the government accountable for failing to give wolves the protection that the law requires.”

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot ensure sustainable populations of wolves in Wyoming when the state’s laws allow so much unregulated wolf killing,” added Defenders of Wildlife Attorney Jason Rylander. “We are hopeful that the court will agree the decision to remove federal protections for wolves in Wyoming was as unlawful as it was unwise.”

Wyoming’s dual status plan has long been a bone of contention with activists, and the road to its approval in September of 2012 was an

arduous one. Federal protections were originally lifted in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in 2008, and all three state plans were approved at that time. Both the Idaho and Montana plans called for statewide designation of the animals as a trophy game species, with seasonal hunting as a means of population control.

In 2009, however, federal district court Judge Donald Molloy overturned the decision, citing Wyoming’s dual status plan as a primary reason for his decision. When protections were again lifted in 2011, Wyoming was removed from the list of approved states. It was only following a series of meetings between then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and Wyoming Governor Matt Mead that a compromise was reached, and the Wyoming plan was finally approved.

According to Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGF) reports, as of December 10, 19 wolves have been harvested in the trophy game area of the state, out of a quota of 26. An additional 34 wolves were reported harvested in the remainder of the state. In neighboring Idaho, 151 wolves were harvested during the state’s hunting season so far in 2013, and Montana reports 97 harvests within the same time frame.

The relatively low number of wolves killed in Wyoming leaves many wondering why the state was chosen as a battleground by activists. The answer, says WGF Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik, lies in how federal protections were removed from each state.

“When Idaho and Montana were delisted, there was federal legislation passed that gave them protections against legislation for five years,” explains Nesvik. “Wyoming was not included in that. I think they’ve targeted us because they can’t get at anyone else.”

With the decision in the hands of a federal court, there is little Wyoming officials can do now to influence the decision. However, according to Nesvik, the litigation did not catch the state by surprise. “Up until this point, we have had the opportunity to work in partnership with the Department of Justice and the U.S.

Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare for this litigation,” he says. “Now we are in a position to wait for the judge to make a decision, and we’ll see what happens.”

Despite the fight to keep it, Nesvik indicates that Wyoming’s management plan has thus far worked well to maintain wolves while keeping their numbers in check. “I feel really good about it, and I think most of our public does as well,” says Nesvik. “Our first hunting season went off really well. Our intent was to reduce the wolf population, and we were successful in doing so.”

According to WGF counts, wolves in the state were reduced by approximately 12 percent. This success during the 2012 season, says Nesvik, led to reducing the quota for the 2013 season to 26. Given the short period of time left in the year, indicates Nesvik, it is unlikely that this quota will be met.

While the numbers outside the trophy game area are less clear, Nesvik points out that most of those kills are related to livestock problems. “We have harvested a lot of wolves in the predator area,” he says, “but those are usually wolves that get themselves into trouble and wouldn’t make it anyway.”

Whether related to the hunting season or not, Nesvik also indicates that reports of livestock conflicts are also down from past years. Within the trophy game area, 57 confirmed depredations of domestic animals have been recorded so far this year, down from 160 in 2012. While depredations outside the trophy game area are not tracked, Nesvik indicates that those are declining, as well. “Those wolves out in the predator area, they get into trouble and they’re done,” he says. “People get on them pretty quick.”

While the outcome of the lawsuit remains unknown, Nesvik remains hopeful that the success so far has shown that Wyoming’s management plan is a functional solution to balancing the needs of both wolves and residents. “I think that there’s proof we can make this dual status thing work,” he says. “We’re still continuing to pay attention to this thing, and we’ll probably make some tweaks to our plan, but overall, I couldn’t be happier with the way it’s going.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent