A broad coalition of conservation, animal welfare, and hunting groups today served notice they will sue to stop the indiscriminate killing of endangered gray wolves in Northwest Montana by federal agents.
The Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Humane Society of the United States, A Hunter's Voice, and Center for Biological Diversity submitted a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division, detailing how these agencies have violated the Endangered Species Act by killing dozens of endangered wolves over the past decade in response to incidents in which wolves have been blamed for livestock losses. The groups also cited the agencies' failure to consider alternative responses to wolf-livestock conflicts, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
"The government has slid into a posture of 'shoot first and ask questions later,'" said Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund who is representing the groups sending the letter. "What it should be doing – and what the law requires – is to protect these highly endangered wolves, by using non-lethal methods wherever possible to deal with livestock conflicts."
The letter advised that the groups would sue in federal court unless the government remedies its violations of the Endangered Species Act within 60 days.
Wolves from Canada recolonized Northwest Montana in and around Glacier National Park in the late 1970s and first denned in the area in 1986. Because they came to the United States on their own, the Northwest Montana wolves are fully protected as an endangered species, unlike the "experimental, non-essential" wolves introduced by the government into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
The government began killing wolves in response to rancher complaints in Northwest Montana as early as 1987, and since then has killed more than 40 wolves. Government agents from USDA's Wildlife Services frequently have killed wolves having no apparent involvement in livestock losses. They also have often shot wolves from helicopters with little or no attempt at trapping or relocation. Recently, as much as 30 percent of the Northwest Montana wolf population has been killed in a single year.
As a result, Northwest Montana's wolf population has made no progress toward recovery from its endangered status for the past three years. Although the government's recovery goal for Northwest Montana wolves is ten breeding pairs sustained over three consecutive years, the population has been stalled out at five breeding pairs.
"Wolves are a long way from recovering from their endangered status in Northwest Montana, and this sweepingly lethal government program has become the major reason for that," said Nathaniel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "You just can't bring wolves back from the brink of extinction by killing them, especially where other conflict resolutions are available."
"Contrary to the Fish and Wildlife Service's claims, you can't recover wolves by shooting them," added Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Because their killing program is so extensive, they can't meet their own recovery standard. That's why they're now trying to lower the standard for delisting the Northwest Montana wolves."
George Wuerthner of A Hunter's Voice, a group of conservation-minded hunters from the United States and Canada, noted that where wolves have actually preyed on livestock, private as well as government options exist for non-lethal solutions. "Our government should not be killing wolves that have been attracted to a ranch by animal carcasses carelessly left on the range, or by other poor animal husbandry practices." Wuerthner pointed out that livestock owners already receive financial compensation for losses caused by wolves.
Wolf advocates are particularly concerned about the fate of the Northwest Montana population because these wolves constitute a potential link between the Yellowstone and central Idaho populations and the wolf populations in Canada. Having a recovered population of wolves in Northwest Montana will promote genetic interchange among the various wolf populations in the northern Rockies. Scientists have concluded that such an interchange is essential to the species' long-term survival.
"For wolves to be secure in the northern Rockies, they have to be secure in northwest Montana," said Len Broberg of the Sierra Club. "We oppose killing wolves when there is productive wolf habitat sitting vacant in Northwest Montana. Why not try alternative methods, such as moving some of these wolves to places where they can prosper, instead of picking up a rifle at the first pretext? That's all we are asking the government to do."