A federal court Friday gave Wyoming authority to hunt gray wolves again, dismissing arguments that Wyoming’s plans do not sufficiently protect the greater Yellowstone population from genetic isolation, among other things.
The ruling could quickly open about 85 percent of the state to wolf killing where Wyoming law considers the species “predatory animals.” Predatory animals may be killed by any method at any time and without a license. The predatory animal zone accounts for about 19 percent of wolves’ suitable Wyoming habitat.
“Our lawyers are still looking at it,” Wyoming Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said Friday of the ruling. Regarding the killing of wolves as predatory animals, “there are probably some steps that need to be taken for that to formally happen.”
Hunting in the northwest corner of Wyoming around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks could resume according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department regulations and seasons. In past years, the season has been set for the fall and early winter. No hunting would be allowed in Yellowstone.
The U.S Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia issued the ruling Friday, authored by Judith Rogers. It dismissed claims that Wyoming’s plan was inadequate under the Endangered Species Act. Wolves had been removed from federal protection before, but placed back under federal protection after a successful challenge claiming similar deficiencies.
Those claims no longer stand, Rogers and two other judges said. They dismissed worries regarding genetic diversity, regarding the widespread predatory animal zone, and other issues.
The court agreed genetic health was an issue to worry about, that the wolf population in Wyoming needed adequate diversity and connectivity to persist. “The final State regulation added a general commitment to ‘ensur[ing] genetic diversity and connectivity,’” the court found. But that commitment is non-binding, conservationists argued.
No protection from ‘any conceivable impact.’
The Endangered Species Act, however, does not require insulating a species from “any conceivable impact,” federal and state lawyers argued as they urged the court to hand management back to Wyoming. That extends to impacts to genetic diversity.
“Because the rulemaking record showed that the wolves’ genetic health is strong, and because Wyoming has other tools at its disposal (including reduction in harvest levels and in its own wolf control actions, and, if necessary, translocating wolves to other subpopulations), the Service concluded that the State’s commitment to ensuring genetic connectivity into the Greater Yellowstone Area was sufficient,” the opinion says. “In this context, the Service’s acceptance of a non-binding commitment to genetic connectivity was notarbitrary and capricious,” the court wrote.
The government relied on studies that showed wolves migrating into the Greater Yellowstone Area and that they had reproduced. There is a “rational basis,” to conclude that numbers in Idaho and Montana will be robust enough to ensure that similar dispersions occur, the court said. It agreed with the Fish and Wildlife Service “that the Northern Rocky Mountain population will level off around 1,000 wolves.”
Also, Wyoming said it “will employ human-assisted genetic exchange as a stopgap measure,” should genetics become a problem. Conservationists argued that wolves should remain protected until they are entirely self-sufficient.
But the court said transplanting for genetic diversity was a tool akin to hunting regulations, population surveys, habitat improvement and other similar wildlife management tools. It called the entire bundle “methods and procedures.” The court referred to a previous ESA ruling involving hatchery-raised fish in which “the use of ‘artificial propagation,’ [was] one of the ESA’s ‘methods and procedures.’”
Wyoming’s large predatory animal zone is appropriate, the court said. Conservationists argued it would discourage dispersal and genetic connectivity, among other things.
The area in Wyoming covers 19 percent of the state’s suitable wolf habitat, the court said. In 2011 it included 3 of 27 breeding pairs, 8 of 48 packs and 46 of 328 wolves.
“The Service concluded that even if all of those wolves were killed, the remaining wolves in Wyoming would be sufficient to maintain a recovered population,” the court wrote. “The Service has offered ample rationale for determining that the predator area was never ‘envisioned to meaningfully contribute to wolf recovery in the region’ and is thus not a ‘significant portion of its range,’” the court said.
Wolves can disperse directly into the GYA from Idaho and Montana “without moving through Wyoming” at all, the court said.
Fish and Wildlife was right to use its judgment that Wyoming would manage wolves at an appropriate level, even though such assurances were not set in stone, the court said. In other instances, the federal agency has relied on protective terms that were not law but which Fish and Wildlife “was reasonably certain would be fulfilled,” the court said. That met the requirements of the law, according to the ruling.
Here’s Wyoming’s legal definition of “predatory animals” from Wyoming Statutes Chapter 23-1-101:
“(viii) “Predatory animal” means:
(A) Coyote, jackrabbit, porcupine, raccoon, red fox, skunk or stray cat; and
(B) Until the date gray wolves are removed from the list of experimental nonessential population, endangered species or threatened species in Wyoming as provided by W.S. 23-1-108, “predatory animal” includes wolves. After that date, “predatory animal” shall include any gray wolf not within an area of the state in which the gray wolf is:
(I) Designated as a trophy game animal under subdivision (xii)(B)(I) of this subsection;
(II) Classified as a trophy game animal by the commission pursuant to W.S. 23-1-304(a).