Conservation groups filed suit today challenging the federal government’s elimination of Endangered Species Act protections for Wyoming wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned wolf management in Wyoming over to state officials this fall even though the state’s wolf-management policies promote unlimited wolf killing in a “predator” zone that extends throughout most of the state and provides inadequate protection for wolves even where killing is regulated. The state policies will result in wolf deaths that undermine the recovery of the species. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
According to independent studies, reintroduction of the gray wolves has helped reestablish ecological balance and boosted the regional economy.
“Wyoming’s anti-wolf policies take the state backward, to the days when wolf massacres nearly wiped out wolves in the lower 48 states. Our nation rejected such predator extermination efforts when we adopted the Endangered Species Act,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has turned its back on Wyoming wolves, and so today we are asking the court to make sure that wolves on the border of Yellowstone—our nation’s first national park—have the protections they need to thrive.”
“Wyoming’s wolf-management plan is poor policy, weak in its protection of wolves, and based on flimsy science," added Franz Camenzind, a retired Ph.D. wildlife biologist who lives in the Jackson Hole area. "Wyoming’s plan sets a very disturbing precedent for other states by abdicating management responsibility of a native wildlife species over approximately 85 percent of the state."
Since Wyoming took over wolf management Oct. 1, 2012, at least 49 wolves have been killed through state-sanctioned hunting and unregulated killing in Wyoming’s “predator” zone; the actual number is likely higher because of delayed or neglected reporting of kills. Before Wyoming took over wolf management, the state’s wolf population numbered only 328 wolves at last count.
Last year Congress gave hunters and trappers in Montana and Idaho the right to kill wolves that had been protected under the Endangered Species Act, nullifying a court victory won by Earthjustice that would have prevented the hunts. In the 2011–2012 hunting season, hunters and trappers killed 545 wolves in Montana and Idaho. Both states eliminated their statewide quotas for wolf killing in the 2012–2013 hunting season, opening the door to even higher wolf mortality. After just over one month of hunting and trapping in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, 177 wolves have been killed.
Fish and Wildlife in the past denied Wyoming the authority to manage wolves due to the state’s extreme anti-wolf laws. Despite what today’s lawsuit calls only “cosmetic” changes to those wolf-management laws, the Service has now reversed its position.
“The administration needs to be held accountable for its decision to allow the senseless and unnecessary killing of wolves in Wyoming,” said Mike Senatore, vice president of conservation law for Defenders of Wildlife. “The American people didn’t invest their hard-earned tax dollars into wolf recovery just so these important animals could be treated like vermin and killed on sight. We can’t allow states like Wyoming to continue to undermine one of our nation’s greatest Endangered Species Act success stories.”
“Wyoming’s plan is a wolf-killing plan, not a management plan. Allowing it to move forward could reverse one of the greatest endangered species recovery success stories of all time,” said Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club’s Greater Yellowstone Resilient Habitats Campaign. “We need a return to the sound, science-based management practices that have for decades brought iconic animals back from the brink of extinction.”
Now that Fish and Wildlife has eliminated federal protections, wolves in Wyoming’s expansive “predator” zone may be shot, snared or trapped; killed from helicopters and airplanes; and pursued on four-wheelers and snowmobiles. Wolf pups may be killed in their dens. The Service has stated that no wolves are expected to survive in these areas.
“This plan allows Wyoming to manage wolves at the razor’s edge of an already low number of wolves,” said Sylvia Fallon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It fails to adequately regulate the kill-on-sight practices that drove wolves to endangerment in the first place. And it stands as yet another lost opportunity on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide the leadership necessary to secure a legally and scientifically defensible delisting plan for wolves.”
The return of the gray wolf to the northern Rockies is one of America’s greatest conservation success stories. After being exterminated from the western United States in the last century, wolves have begun a significant comeback in the region. According to independent studies, their reintroduction has helped reestablish ecological balance and boosted the regional economy.
“Taking Endangered Species Act protections away from Wyoming’s wolves is a disaster not only for the state’s wolves but for the possible return of wolves to Colorado and other parts of the West,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Like past versions of Wyoming’s wolf plan—which were rejected by the Fish and Wildlife Service—the new plan fails to ensure the long-term survival and recovery of these unique animals. The decision to remove protections for Wyoming’s wolves failed to rely on best science. It’s a tragic political intrusion into what should be the scientifically guided management of an important endangered species.”
Earthjustice represents Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club in this action.