No agreement over conflicting wolf rulings
While one conservationist sees room to negotiate, two hunters disagree.
By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Two seemingly contradictory wolf decisions from two U.S. District Court judges in Wyoming and Montana indicate that it is time to move the wolf debate out of the courts, the head of a regional conservation group said Tuesday.
The decisions also show that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “has not done a very good job in terms of keeping up with its legal responsibilities,” Greater Yellowstone Coalition executive director Mike Clark said.
At issue are rulings from U.S. District Court judges Donald Molloy, of Missoula, Mont., and Alan B. Johnson, from Cheyenne.
Molloy said the government was wrong to remove federal protection from the wolf in Montana and Idaho but not from Wyoming.
Johnson then said the government’s rejection of Wyoming’s wolf plan — a foundation of the Malloy ruling — was improper and must be reconsidered.
“Both judges have said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to clean up their act,” Clark said. “They seem, on the one hand, to be politically different, but they are both saying ‘shape up.’ ”
“We’re still hopeful that all of us can step back from this and begin talking about what’s happening on the ground instead of having to use the courts,” Clark continued. “It’s time for all of us to … have some dialogue. The wolves are here to stay. The question is what number of wolves will people tolerate.”
Not everybody is amenable to talks outside the courtroom, however.
“Those type of negotiations are out the window,” Kelly outfitter B.J. Hill said.
“They’ve lost their credibility with the folks,” Hill said of conservation groups. “You do not negotiate with an environmental greenie. If you want to play, you play hardball.”
The conflicting rulings could lead to even more legal wrangling, Bob Wharff, Wyoming executive director for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said. If Congress doesn’t intervene, he warned, the case will likely get bogged down in courts for years.
“Now you’ve got two different rulings from two different circuits, which means it’s probably going to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said. “We’ve been saying the only solution is a congressional one. The system has just flat not worked.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is likely to wait until Congress decides the fate of several pending bills that would put wolf management in control of the states before it takes steps to reconsider Wyoming’s wolf management plan, as ordered by the most recent court decision, Clark said. In the meantime, he continues to look at the existing situation.
Livestock depredation rates didn’t increase until 2007, when the wolf population was about 1,500 animals, Clark said.
“We know the system will support 1,200 to 1,500 wolves,” he said.
Hunting could be an option once Idaho, Montana and Wyoming agree on a comprehensive strategy that would remove wolves from Endangered Species Act protection while ensuring a healthy population into the future, Clark continued.
“If Wyoming would modify its [wolf management plan] so it’s not so onerous, then there would be some room for agreement.”
Conservationists have criticized Wyoming for forging a plan for minimal wolf numbers that would classify them as predators, which could be killed at any time and by any means, across more than 80 percent of the state.
Hill said the political baggage over wolves has tainted the issue.
“I have three boys,” he said. “I would have liked to see if they could have learned to like that animal.
“We’re not against predators,” he said. “We’re against the politics of the predators.”
The Johnson ruling is both a victory and a loss, Hill said.
“We ended up winning the lawsuit, but, having said that, we would have liked [U.S. District Court Judge from Wyoming] Alan Johnson to delist these wolves” and remove federal protection, he said.
“If I had a magic wand, I would turn it trophy [game] statewide,” Hill continued. “I’m in Pacific Creek — Wyoming wolf central — but I would not go against my allies to force the wolf on the state.”
Wharff said Judge Johnson’s decision is a vindication.
“It’s something we felt all along, that Wyoming’s plan was biologically and scientifically sound,” he said. “There is a burden that is borne by the sportsmen and the agricultural community.”
For now, Johnson’s decision doesn’t affect wolf management, Jenny Harbine, staff attorney for Earthjustice, an conservation law firm, said.
“Wolves on the ground are still subject to [Endangered Species Act] protections,” she said. “Not only in Wyoming, but in Montana and Idaho as well. The Wyoming court’s decision does not change that.”
Wyoming’s Governor-elect Matt Mead said he hasn’t had time to read the lawsuit, but he said Johnson’s decision is a good first step.
“I thought Wyoming’s plan was the right way to go. It was based upon science,” he said. “This plan that Wyoming has was originally signed off on by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an appropriate plan.”
State officials were also pleased by the ruling.
“We haven’t had a chance to review the entire ruling yet,” Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman Eric Keszler said. “However, we have been saying for a long time that Wyoming’s wolf management plan is sufficient to maintain a recovered population of wolves in northwest Wyoming. This decision would seem to support that.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials would not comment directly on the decision.