By CHRIS MERRILL
Star-Tribune environment reporter
LANDER — A dire prediction is at the heart of a federal judge’s recent decision to halt wolf delisting: If states in the Northern Rockies proceed as planned, wolves in the Greater Yellowstone area will become inbred in fewer than 60 years.
This prediction serves as the foundation for U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s 40-page ruling to reinstate Endangered Species Act protection for the canines at least until he has fully considered the larger lawsuit against delisting.
The conservation groups who sued for an immediate injunction against the delisting decision argued that if the three wolf populations fail to interbreed with one another, which they say the state wolf management plans all but ensure, the wolves in and around Yellowstone will suffer genetic degradation over time.
They also claimed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to follow its own criteria for establishing a recovered wolf population, which calls for genetic exchange between the three groups, creating what’s called a “metapopulation.”
In the injunction ruling the judge sided with the conservation groups on both points.
“Genetic exchange that has not taken place between larger subpopulations under ESA protections is not likely to occur with fewer wolves under state management,” Molloy wrote,
“Absent genetic exchange, the wolf will not likely be able to withstand future environmental variability and stochastic — or random — events. Plaintiffs therefore have demonstrated a possibility of irreparable harm.”
The majority of Molloy’s decision outlines a debate stemming from a 2007 genetics study commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which litigants call the “VonHoldt Study.” The study “confirmed wolves in Yellowstone National Park have remained genetically isolated from wolves in the northwestern Montana and central Idaho core recovery areas since their reintroduction in 1995.”
The conservation organizations say the VonHoldt study proves that without genetic exchange between core recovery areas, wolves face “serious threats to survival.”
Molloy noted the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges there is no proof of exchange between the three main subpopulations, nevertheless, “the Service now takes the position that documented proof of DNA exchange is not required to achieve a metapopulation. The rationale for rejecting the VonHoldt Study’s predictions is not convincing nor well explained,” the judge wrote.
But Ed Bangs, the federal gray wolf recovery coordinator, said there are fundamental flaws with these arguments, and the way the VonHoldt study is being used by the plaintiffs in this case.
Furthermore, if one were to look more closely at the VonHoldt study, one would see that its computer-modeled predictions of inbreeding are impossible, once well-established wolf behavior is entered into the equation.
The conservation organizations have asserted — and the judge has at least temporarily sided with the claim — that genetic exchange between the three subpopulations must be “natural” or else it doesn’t count, Bangs said.
“We never promised the connectivity had to be natural,” he said. “I don’t know where this whole thing about ‘natural’ connectivity came from. Wolves were artificially reintroduced in the first place, and we artificially moved wolves around until 2001.”
Yes, Bangs said, genetic exchange is an important thing to keep an eye on, and the Service believes there’s an extremely slim possibility the wolves in Yellowstone could face genetic degradation after several decades.
But the delisting decision takes that possibility, no matter how remote, into account, Bangs said.
“The bottom line is genetic exchange is important,” he said. “That’s why Wyoming’s plan has a contingent that if genetics became a problem, they would remedy that by relocation.”
The point is, he said, it’s the same action the feds would take if, some day, evidence of genetic degradation popped up.
“We took ten wolf puppies from northwestern Montana and put them in Yellowstone back in 1996,” Bangs said.
The reason, he said, is given the modern landscape, it likely would have taken 30 years or more for wolves to “naturally” disperse there from the burgeoning Montana group.
“The whole idea of the “natural” thing — nobody ever promised that,” Bangs said. “If the population ever got in trouble, you’d just put a few more wolves in there. It’s not that tricky.”
In his ruling, Molloy cited the VonHoldt Study, and the Service’s perceived failure to adequately address its claims, as one of the reasons for granting the injunction.
The VonHoldt Study concluded “if the Yellowstone wolf population remains relatively constant at 170 individuals (estimated to be Yellowstone’s carrying capacity), the population will demonstrate substantial inbreeding effects within 60 years,” resulting in an “increase in juvenile mortality from an average of 23 to 40 percent, an effect equivalent to losing an additional pup in each litter,” the judge noted.
Those numbers cited by the judge, however, are misleading because they were derived through computer modeling which assumed that some things would happen, which would actually never take place, Bangs said.
And the computer modeling was a component of the study, not the point of the study, he said.
“The study itself was really well done,” Bangs said.
But the computer model was a worst-case-scenario item, which the rest of the study, itself, shows couldn’t ever actually happen, he argued. The most basic assumption built in to the calculations was that wolves in Yellowstone would breed at random — which goes against the very nature of the canines, Bangs said.
“The major assumption that wolves breed randomly, that they might pick mates randomly, is an impossibility,” he said. “The study itself shows that wolves are highly selective when they pick mates, and they reliably outbreed.”
In fact, wolves are so good at recognizing close relatives and avoiding mating with them, Bangs said, that the animals naturally create genetic variety on par with human-run “species survival plans,” where the gene pool is handpicked.
Bangs agrees if all the assumptions in the computer model were true, in 60 years the model’s prediction might come true. But one of its central assumptions is patently impossible, he said.
In addition, it is highly likely that a few wolves from Montana will disperse to Yellowstone in the coming years naturally and reproduce, if it hasn’t happened already, he said.
Still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming who are intervening in the case, are going to have to prove to Molloy that the original recovery plan for wolves does not specifically require that genetic exchange between the three groups happen without human help.
They’ll also have to prove that the original goals don’t call for scientific proof of naturally occurring genetic exchange.
“Although the Service now says genetic exchange is unnecessary, it provides no persuasive reasons for this change of course that were not known in 1994, when the new criteria were established, or in 2001 and 2002, when the criteria were reaffirmed,” Molloy wrote.
Later he added: “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s speculation about genetic exchange is not convincing.”
Attorneys General from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho are supposed to decide on their strategy for proceeding in the wolf delisting case during a teleconference today.
Environment reporter Chris Merrill can be reached at email@example.com or at (307) 267-6722.
Uncertainty how ruling affects Barrasso bill
It is unclear how the recent federal court injunction against the delisting of wolves might affect a rancher compensation bill in Congress, a spokesman for Sen. John Barrasso said.
Sen. Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced the Gray Wolf Livestock Mitigation Act in April, which is still awaiting clearance from a Senate subcommittee.
The bill would authorize federal matching grants for state-run compensation programs, as well as programs that prevent livestock depredation, by covering the cost of fencing, guard dogs or other methods of protection.
If the bill were to become law, the federal grant dollars would flow from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to state wildlife management agencies, which would determine how to spend the money.
Barrasso’s press secretary, Gregory Keeley, said he’s not sure yet what the implications of the ruling will be on the proposed federal legislation.
“The Tester-Barrasso bill is designed to help states manage the wolves by augmenting wolf compensation programs with federal funds,” Keeley said. “Unfortunately, it is unclear just what impact the Tester-Barrasso bill will have if the wolf remains on the list.”
Because the act doesn’t specifically require that wolves not be protected by the federal Endangered Species Act in order to trigger the federal grant dollars — and because the Cowboy State is likely to enter into a cooperative wolf management relationship with the feds — the court injunction against delisting might not affect the bill at all, another member of Barrasso’s staff said Tuesday.
Have the original recovery goals for wolves been met?
The original 1994 plan for wolf recovery asserted that “thirty or more breeding pairs comprising some 300-plus wolves in a metapopulation (a population that exists as partially isolated sets of subpopulations) with genetic exchange between subpopulations should have a high probability of long-term persistence.”
Over the next two years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves captured in southwestern Canada into central Idaho and into the Greater Yellowstone Area, and wolves dispersed on their own into Montana from Canada.
The northern Rocky Mountain wolf population met the Fish and Wildlife Services’ numeric recovery baseline of 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves for the first time in 2000.
Even though there are currently more than 1,500 wolves and 106 breeding pairs in the Northern Rockies, there has yet to be any scientifically verified “genetic exchange” between the three groups.
DNA tests confirm wild gray wolves in Washington
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington state wildlife officials said genetic tests have confirmed that two animals captured last Friday in western Okanogan County are wild, gray wolves. Before releasing the wolves — a male and a lactating female — biologists fitted them with radio collars to track their movements.
The state Fish and Wildlife Department also noted Wednesday that a remote camera operated by a private group has photographed the radio-collared male wolf at a location where six pups were also photographed.
Wildlife officials said this is the first documented resident wolf pack in Washington since the 1930s.
Last we knew: A federal judge restored endangered species protection for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies last week.
The latest: The federal gray wolf recovery coordinator responded Thursday to the issue of “genetic exchange,” which is at the heart of the judge’s ruling.
What’s next: Attorneys general from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho will decide on their strategy on the wolf decision during a teleconference today.