Conservation groups today filed their challenge to the removal of Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Idaho and Montana. On April 2, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped the wolves from the Endangered Species list, finalizing an effort launched by the Bush administration to deprive the wolves of legal and habitat protections, thus allowing state management and hunting. The challenged delisting decision is the second time in a year the federal government has removed federal protections for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, successfully sued to get the protections reinstated in July 2008.
Delisting wolves means they will be subject to state-sponsored wolf "control" efforts and hunting unless stopped by legal action. Idaho and Montana plan to allow hundreds of wolves to be shot.
The decision to lift wolf protections comes as Yellowstone National Park wolves declined by 27 percent in the last year -- one of the largest declines reported since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. The northern Rockies wolf population also has not achieved a level of connectivity between the greater Yellowstone, central Idaho, and northwest Montana areas that is essential to wolves' long-term survival. In delisting wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service authorized Idaho and Montana to reduce their wolf populations from a current population of roughly 1,500 wolves to only 200-300 wolves in the two states.
Wolves will remain under federal control in Wyoming because a federal court previously ruled that Wyoming's hostile wolf management scheme leaves wolves in "serious jeopardy." The Fish and Wildlife Service in the recent past held that a state-by-state approach to delisting wolves was not permitted under the Endangered Species Act, including in its earlier decision to not delist wolves without Wyoming's inclusion. In the challenged delisting decision, the federal government flip flopped from its earlier position.
In addition to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have refused to make enforceable commitments to maintain viable wolf populations within their borders. On the very day the first wolf 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 authorized a fall wolf hunt.
Earthjustice represents Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Project, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.
Read the complaint (PDF)
"Wolf populations in the Northern Rockies are nearing legitimate recovery levels. Like most things, you can do it right or you can do it over. Here, FWS did it over, but did it wrong," said Doug Honnold of Earthjustice, who represents the conservation group plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "When the states demonstrate they are willing to manage wolves for long-term survival and recovery rather than short-term devastation, we can all celebrate true recovery of the wolf."
"We look forward to celebrating the transfer of wolves to state management but not until a federal delisting rule is developed that ensures the future of wolves in the region. This plan ignores current science on what wolves need to maintain a healthy population over the long term. It also ignores the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have asked for a better plan," said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies Representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
"The recovery of wolves in the Northern Rockies is tantalizingly close -- but we are not there yet," said Louisa Willcox, Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's office in Livingston, Montana. "And sadly, state-sponsored hunts are only going to push the finish line further away. The science is clear; so until we see natural connectivity between Yellowstone and the rest of the Rockies and states willing to give the wolves a break, not drive them to the brink of extinction, this fight will continue."
"Unfortunately, leaving wolves in state hands right now threatens their survival. Wolves are one of America's natural treasures, and they should be managed that way," Melanie Stein, a Sierra Club representative, said. "It makes no sense to delist wolves on a state-by-state basis. Wolves don't know political boundaries. We look forward to restoring wolves to the care of the federal government until the states have come up with plans that will sustain wolves into the future. We hope to work with the Obama administration to ensure that wolves fully recover."
"We are disappointed that this early in the new administration, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar choose to ignore sound science and instead choose to pursue a piecemeal delisting plan for the Northern Rockies gray wolf population. It makes no sense to segment an already fragmented population with two different management plans. Taking away Endangered Species protection from wolves in Montana and Idaho while keeping Wyoming's wolves under federal protection completely ignores the best population and ecosystem science. In addition, we firmly believe that the three states' management plans will lead to the unwarranted death of hundreds of wolves. As much as we wish to have the states manage their wolves, they simply haven't developed adequate management plans, and the Federal government is acting irresponsibly by proposing delisting under these circumstances," said Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance.
"We are disappointed the new administration has missed this opportunity to rethink the failed wolf persecution policies of the last eight years," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation with The Humane Society of the United States. "The federal government's efforts to strip wolves of all federal protection have been repeatedly struck down by the courts, and this latest rule is no more likely to succeed than the previous failed attempts."
"It is unfortunate that the Obama administration has adopted Bush-era legal views that count wolves as 'recovered' even when they still only occupy less than five percent of their original range in our country," said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Wolves are still endangered and we believe the court will see through this chicanery."
"Wolf reintroduction transcends state boundaries, and so does wolf habitat. What one state does to their wolves can greatly affect what happens in another state," said Jennifer Schwartz, staff attorney for Hells Canyon Preservation Council. "Therefore, until the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are fully recovered throughout a significant portion of their historical habitat, it makes the most sense for wolves to be managed by the feds, not the states. If Idaho shoots a large percentage of their wolves, it's highly unlikely that Oregon will have any stable wolf packs at all."
Jenny Harbine, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699
Suzanne Asha Stone, Defenders of Wildlife, (208) 861-4655
Louisa Willcox, Natural Resources Defense Council, (406) 222-9561
Melanie Stein, Sierra Club, (307) 733-4557
Michael Robinson, Center for Biological Diversity, (575) 313-7017
Rachel Querry, The Humane Society of the United States, (301) 258-8255