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Wolf Recovery Under Attack in the Northern Rockies

Once virtually wiped off the map by decades of hunting, trapping, and poisoning, wolf numbers are slowly rising thanks to recovery efforts. On August 5, 2010, in response to an Earthjustice lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy restored Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana.

The ruling stated that the decision by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections in only two states was "a political solution that does not comply with the ESA."

The court ruling came in response to a move by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2009 eliminating Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains except for those in Wyoming. The delisting effort was the second time in twelve months the government moved to lift federal protections from wolves. Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, successfully sued to get the protections reinstated after the first delisting effort brought by the Bush administration in July 2008.

The decision to lift wolf protections comes as Yellowstone Park wolves declined by 27 percent in the last year—one of the largest declines reported since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. Wolf populations in the northern Rockies don't mix enough between the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, central Idaho, and northwest Montana to avoid inbreeding and ensure wolves' long-term survival.

Independent scientists say that between 2,000 and 3,000 wolves are needed to have a sustainable, fully-recovered population. After delisting, the northern Rockies wolf population may be allowed to drop to only 300 to 450 wolves.

Wolves will remain under federal control in Wyoming because the court ruled that Wyoming's hostile wolf management scheme leaves wolves in "serious jeopardy." The Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly stated that a state-by-state approach to delisting wolves was not permitted under the Endangered Species Act, including in an earlier decision to not delist wolves without Wyoming's inclusion. In addition to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have refused to make enforceable commitments to maintaining viable wolf populations within their borders. On the very day the first delisting took effect in March, 2008, Idaho Governor Butch Otter signed a law allowing Idaho citizens to kill wolves without a permit whenever wolves are annoying, disturbing, or "worrying" livestock or domestic animals. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission established rules that would have allowed 428 wolves to be killed in 2008 alone had the court not returned wolves to the endangered species list. Montana also planned a fall wolf hunt.

Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, sent the Fish and Wildlife Service a notice that the delisting violates the Endangered Species Act. On June 2, 2009, the conservation groups asked a federal court to reinstate federal Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the northern Rockies until wolf numbers are stronger and the states pledge to responsibly manage wolves.

Back from the Brink

Wolves in the lower-48 states were listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act in 1973 after many years of persecution nearly wiped them out. Without wolves, the Northern Rockies saw unnaturally large populations of elk proliferate and overgraze natural areas. Streams and creeks, once cold, clear, and full of fish, grew muddy from soil erosion. Without wolves, park rangers in Yellowstone were forced to shoot elk to control the population. Other wildlife species were also affected by the unnatural imbalance created by the absence of wolves.

After years of planning and study, federal officials released 66 gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996. They prospered and multiplied, and today their offspring are thought to number around 1500, spread across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

Benefits of Wolves

A 2006 study by the University of Montana found that tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park to see wolves brought $35 million annually to the region's economy, which yields more than $70 million in added benefit to communities in the northern Rockies. Elk populations are now healthier, streams run cold and clear again, and other wildlife populations are back in balance.

In the face of this unparalleled recovery progress, the Bush administration turned its back on gray wolves by approving seriously flawed state plans. These plans failed to guarantee that wolf populations are strong enough to perform their important ecological role and avoid genetic bottlenecks brought on by inbreeding. According to more than 200 scientists who commented on the delisting proposal, several thousand wolves are needed in the northern Rockies to ensure their long-term survival. Once on the verge of recovery, the future of America’s wolves is now hanging in the balance.