U.S. District Court: Groups ask to shield wolves
By TRISTAN SCOTT of the Missoulian
Conservationists who oppose the removal of wolves from under federal protection – and who call the delisting unlawful – sought an emergency injunction Thursday to stop the animals’ killing.
Last month, a coalition of 11 environmental groups sued the U.S. Department of the Interior in an effort to keep gray wolves in the Northern Rockies region on the endangered species list.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director H. Dale Hall announced the delisting decision in February, and it took effect March 28, divesting the gray wolf of its Endangered Species Act protections.
Without those protections, environmentalists say, the gray wolf population will never reach sustainable levels and is likely to enter a long-term decline.
At a hearing in Missoula on Thursday, the coalition’s attorney, Doug L. Honnold of Earthjustice, tried to convince U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy to extend federal protections until the lawsuit is resolved.
About 17 lawyers representing as many state agencies and nonprofit policy groups defended the management plan, which requires states to maintain a minimum of 300 wolves. Agency officials say they are committed to maintaining at least 450 wolves and that the actual population likely will be about 1,000.
The region’s wolf population is increasing by about 24 percent annually, according to wildlife officials.
But environmentalists say state officials and ranchers have already killed 77 wolves since the delisting, at a rate of more than one wolf per day, and that the states’ wolf management scheme represents a return to many of the policies that resulted in wolves’ eradication from the Western landscape.
“We hope Judge Molloy’s decision will give the wolves a necessary reprieve while this issue gets sorted out,” said Louisa Wilcox, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Livingston office.
Although an estimated 1,500 gray wolves live in the northern Rockies, where they were nearly exterminated by the 1930s, environmentalists argue that Montana, Idaho and Wyoming – states that have taken over wolf management from the Fish and Wildlife Service – have not achieved the wolf recovery objectives outlined in the Endangered Species Act.
Wolf numbers will be further decimated by legalized hunting and loosened restrictions on when wolves can be killed to protect game herds, Wilcox said.
The three states have each committed to maintain between 100 and 150 wolves, and plan to open wolf-hunting seasons in the fall. Montana has regulated wolves as a big-game species, but some wolves in Wyoming and Idaho are classified as predatory and can be killed year-round.
“There are aspects of these state management plans that say anyone, anywhere can kill a wolf, even if they are not threatening livestock,” Wilcox said. “We could then witness a slaughter of over a thousand wolves, executed as we have seen in recent weeks, on the backs of snowmobiles, as well as by trappers and aerial gunners.”
Wilcox also said the notion that 300 wolves comprises an adequate population is “the science of the past,” and maintains that between 2,000 and 5,000 wolves are needed to avoid inbreeding and maintain a healthy, genetically diverse population.
“There is no scientific evidence that there has been any kind of genetic exchange between Yellowstone wolves and wolves in western Montana and the Glacier area,” Wilcox said. “Those wolves are breeding with siblings.”
Although wolves have been known to disperse from the Yellowstone area into Idaho, they typically do not migrate to Yellowstone from other areas, like Glacier National Park and Idaho, Wilcox said.
“It’s not just about numbers, it’s about conductivity,” she said.
Attorneys for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services said a population of 300 would contain enough successfully reproducing packs to fully achieve the recovery objectives for the gray wolf. No wolf population of that size and distribution has gone extinct in recent history, unless it was deliberately eradicated, attorneys said.
James Knight, an ecologist at Montana State University and expert for the defense, said in a court declaration that wolf killings will not cause a serious population decline. Instead, he argues that the wolf population’s natural growth will surpass kill rates and that state management plans will not threaten population levels during the litigation process.
“I have come to the conclusion that current wolf populations have very little chance of being significantly reduced by humans if wolves remain under the control of current state management plans during current legal disputes over their classification as an endangered species,” Knight said.
Molloy must now decide whether to issue the injunction, or order that the states’ plans and laws to manage wolves are adequate.
Defendants in the case include numerous cattlemen associations in Montana and Wyoming and big-game hunting proponents, including Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, the National Rifle Association, Friends of the Yellowstone Elk Herd and Safari Club International.
Among the plaintiffs in the case are the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Humane Society of the United States, Center for Biological Diversity, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater and Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Gray wolves were among the first species to be listed by the secretary of the Interior as endangered when, alarmed by the pace of species’ decline, Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
“The wolf has been restored here. Why reverse that success?” Wilcox said. “Why put into place the same killing mechanisms that got the wolf placed under the Endangered Species Act in the first place?”