As Idaho's wolf hunt season came to an end today, wildlife advocates mourned the loss of more than 500 members of the Northern Rockies' population of the endangered predator due to human killing. The Idaho hunt, along with a similar season in Montana, followed on the heels of the Department of Interior's April 2009 delisting of gray wolf populations in those states under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Since the delisting, at least 257 wolves have been shot by hunters in Idaho and Montana — including an alpha female and a 5-month-old pup in Yellowstone National Park's renowned Cottonwood Pack, which had been intensively studied by biologists. Roughly 250 more wolves were killed in Idaho and Montana since delisting, primarily by state and federal agents in the name of livestock protection.
"The Montana hunt was wildly successful in killing wolves," said Doug Honnold of Earthjustice. "Even in Idaho, with lots of inaccessible backcountry, almost the entire wolf quota set by the state was killed by hunters. We know we can kill wolves. Unless ESA protection is reinstated to wolves, both Idaho and Montana will increase wolf hunting in 2010, setting back recovery even more."
"Idaho and Montana are busy heralding the success of their first wolf hunts as justification for removing protections from the species," said Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "Yet, the biggest threat facing wolves is not these hunts but the federal wolf delisting plan which allows Idaho and Montana to kill off most of their wolves. That plan is the most serious threat to wolves in the region and nothing has been done to fix it yet."
"Beyond the animals needlessly shot, hunting wolves disrupts family bonds, can leave pups to starve, and contributes to the dangerous genetic isolation of wolves in Yellowstone," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. "We are eager to see northern Rockies wolves restored to the endangered species list, and the results of these hunts bolster our legal claims."
"These hunts were premature and should never have occurred in the first place. And though it's nice to see them finally end, the damage is already done," said Matt Skoglund, NRDC Wildlife Advocate. "The hunts unnecessarily killed over 250 wolves and have further delayed full recovery of the Northern Rockies wolf population."
Earthjustice is representing 13 conservation groups in a challenge to the delisting in U.S. District Court in the District of Montana. The suit seeks to restore ESA protections to the wolf until wolf numbers are stronger, migration corridors are protected, and the states develop adequate laws and regulations to protect wolf populations from extinction. The groups asked the court to issue an injunction halting the 2009 hunts in Idaho and Montana. While the court declined to stop the hunts, the court ruled that the groups are likely to win their legal challenge to the delisting.
Groups represented by Earthjustice in the wolf delisting suit are 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 Network, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.
Under the challenged U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf delisting rule, Idaho and Montana were given the green light to reduce each state's wolf population to 100-150 individual wolves. Hunters killed breeding "alpha" male and female wolves, not only disrupting wolf social groups but leaving pups vulnerable to predation and starvation.
The hunts went forward even though the wolf population in Yellowstone National Park declined by 27 percent in 2008 — one of the largest declines reported since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. The number of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming declined even further in 2009, dropping from 124 documented wolves in 2008 to only 96 wolves in 2009. The Yellowstone wolf population's long-term future depends on its connection to populations in central Idaho and northwest Montana. Those states' wolf hunts may have injured the connectivity among those populations, increasing the threats to the Yellowstone wolves' gene pool.
Wolves are still under federal protection in Wyoming because a federal court previously ruled that Wyoming's inadequate wolf management scheme would leave wolves in "serious jeopardy" if ESA protections were removed. Until recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service repeatedly concluded that a state-by-state approach to delisting wolves was not permitted under the Endangered Species Act. The Interior Department reversed that earlier position when it delisted wolves in Idaho and Montana but not Wyoming. The states of Idaho and Montana have refused to make enforceable commitments to maintain viable wolf populations within their borders.