Published with permission from Environment & Energy (not for republication)
By Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Wyoming’s wolf hunt set to begin next week is in jeopardy after a federal judge in Washington, D.C., yesterday reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for the iconic predator.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson found Wyoming provided no reasonable assurances that it would keep wolf numbers above a minimum threshold set by federal scientists when wolves were delisted in 2012. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting rule was “arbitrary and capricious,” she said.
The ruling is a major blow for Wyoming as well as ranching and sportsmen’s groups that warn wolves prey on livestock and big game including elk and moose. For now, it is illegal to kill or harass a wolf anywhere in Wyoming.
Conservation groups cheered the ruling, having long argued that Wyoming’s wolf management plan was too aggressive because it allowed the predators to be killed without a license in about 85 percent of the state.
“We’re thrilled,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the lawsuit along with the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife in November 2012, just months after wolves were returned to state control.
The Humane Society of the United States and Fund for Animals filed their own lawsuit months later, and the cases were combined.
“The court has ruled and Wyoming’s kill-on-sight approach to wolf management throughout much of the state must stop,” said Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., who represented the environmental groups. “If Wyoming wants to resume management of wolves, it must develop a legitimate conservation plan that ensures a vibrant wolf population in the Northern Rockies.”
Wyoming’s wolf hunt was scheduled to begin Oct. 1.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) said the state would ask for a stay of the ruling so it could craft an emergency rule to address Jackson’s concern.
“There are many positives in Judge Jackson’s decision,” Mead said in a statement. “However, she held that Wyoming’s plan was not sufficiently formalized to support the Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2012 rule allowing limited take of gray wolves. We believe an emergency rule can remedy this.”
However, Jackson rejected environmentalists’ claims that wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park lack genetic connectivity with their northern Rocky Mountain kin and that they remain imperiled throughout a “significant portion” of their range.
Jackson said those issues were scientific matters on which the court would defer to FWS.
But the agency’s delisting rule in September 2012 was ultimately “arbitrary and capricious” because it was premised on flimsy assurances from Wyoming that wolves would be maintained above a minimum of 100 animals and 10 breeding pairs outside Yellowstone National Park.
“The reliance on mere assurances was inappropriate,” Jackson wrote in her 40-page opinion. “The agency expressly relied upon unenforceable statements of intent on an issue that was critical to the delisting decision.”
Since wolves were delisted in Wyoming, 219 of the animals have been killed, the environmental groups said. The state allowed 42 wolves to be killed as trophy in 2012, its first wolf hunt, and 24 last year, according to federal reports. More than 60 other wolves were killed in the predator zone encompassing most of Wyoming.
After being extirpated from the region in the 1930s, Rocky Mountain wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone in 1994. Federal biologists consider the species to have successfully recovered.
Wyoming currently has at least 306 wolves and 23 breeding pairs, according to the latest official estimate. About 1,691 roam Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state, about level with the previous year.
Yesterday’s ruling is likely a disappointment for the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which intervened in defense of the FWS delisting rule.
“Without the state’s wolf harvest and predator management strategies, long term wolf conservation in Wyoming is likely to fail,” the groups argued to the court in summer 2013. “The key to wolf sustainability in Wyoming … is social tolerance and the ability of state wildlife managers to achieve and maintain the cultural carrying capacity of wolves in the states.”
From 2008 to 2012, wolves in the northern Rockies killed an average of 199 cows and 397 sheep, according to federal data. That number is small compared with overall livestock losses in the region, FWS has said.
Yesterday’s ruling is the latest legal victory for environmental groups, which have long argued that wolves play an integral ecological role on the Western landscape and must be managed at higher numbers.
Environmental groups have succeeded twice in past lawsuits to block wolf delisting plans. In 2008, a federal district court in Montana tossed a FWS rule delisting the animals throughout the northern Rockies, arguing Wyoming’s plan was deficient. The same court rejected FWS’s plan 2009 to delist the animals in Montana and Idaho.
FWS Director Dan Ashe in 2012 argued that Wyoming wolves had met population recovery goals for 10 consecutive years. Wyoming’s wolf population is still double what is required under the FWS delisting plan.
But while FWS had rejected Wyoming’s earlier wolf management plan, its reversal in 2012 was based on “cosmetic” changes, the plaintiffs had argued.
FWS is now proposing to delist wolves throughout most of the rest of the lower 48 states, an effort that environmentalists are almost certain to challenge in court.
While wolves have made a swift comeback in the United States over the past two decades, wildlife advocates say they still need federal protection to recolonize suitable habitat in the southern Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, California and the Northeast.