by Eve Byron, – Independent Record, (406) 447-4076, firstname.lastname@example.org
As promised, a coalition of conservation groups filed a lawsuit in federal court in Missoula Tuesday to try to halt the removal of gray wolves from the list of animals covered by the Endangered Species Act in Montana and Idaho.
In an equally expected move Tuesday in Wyoming, the state sued the federal government over its decision to retain protection for wolves in that state.
“This is not about science or biology, it’s about politics,” said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Wyoming says they have too many wolves and the environmental groups say there aren’t enough.
“Both sides are beating each other up, and we’re in the middle of the road. The wolf recovery program made our commitments, we looked at the science and made a decision. So now we’re getting run over by both sides.”
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, says Bangs’ comment is a “straw man argument.”
“I think he’s being a little hypocritical,” Garrity said. “They said they couldn’t delist wolves before without Wyoming and now they say they can.”
The 13 groups announced their intent to sue 60 days ago, after the Obama administration in April removed gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the list.
In Wyoming, wolves remain under federal protection because the state’s management plan classified them as predators that could be shot on sight throughout most of the state.
The ability to shoot wolves in Montana and Idaho have more restrictions on when wolves can be shot, but both states’ management plans include hunting seasons.
Critics argue that wolves don’t recognize state boundaries, and they can’t be recovered in one state while endangered in an adjacent state.
In making the delisting announcement in April, Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and others with the federal government disagree, with Salazar saying in March that dropping gray wolves from the list is justified by their strong comeback in the northern Rockies, now home to 1,645 wolves in 98 breeding pairs.
An estimated 1,000 wolf pups probably were born this spring, added Bangs.
Montana has a minimum of 497 wolves with 34 breeding pairs; Idaho has 846 wolves with 39 breeding pairs; and Wyoming has confirmed 302 wolves with 25 breeding pairs.
“These numbers are about five times higher than the minimum population recovery goal and three times higher than the minimum breeding pair recovery goal. The end of 2008 will mark the ninth consecutive year the population has exceeded our numeric and distributional recovery goals,” the federal government noted in its decision to delist the wolves.
A breeding pair is defined as an adult male and female that have reproduced to create packs, and Bangs said anywhere from four to 14 wolves can be in the pack.
Yet Garrity and others argue that to ensure biological diversity of any species, about 500 breeding pairs are needed. That would equate to anywhere from 2,000 to 7,000 wolves in packs.
“That’s not just in Montana, but throughout the northern Rockies and could include Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington,” Garrity said. “So Montana could have the same number of wolves; they would just be spread out among the Rockies.”
The conservation groups warn in their lawsuit that delisting wolves will cause a dramatic decline in populations so they’ll never “achieve true recovery as envisioned by Congress.”
“This suit is about ensuring a successful ending to one of the greatest of all conservation stories,” said Louisa Willcox, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston. “Sustainable recovery for wolves in the Northern Rockies is tantalizingly close, but we are not there yet.
“We look forward to a time when wolves can be taken off the list; but sadly, state-sponsored hunts are only going to push that finish line further away,” Wilcox added. “Until the wolf population in the Northern Rockies reaches a sustainable level, this fight will continue.”
According to the Associated Press, Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said his state maintains the federal government has no scientific reason to reject Wyoming’s management plan, and that the government is trying to force the state to support more than its fair share of the wolf population.
This is the third attempt to take wolves off the list of protected species, and the second time a lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Project and Hell’s Canyon Preservation Council.
In the first lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy stated that the federal government acted arbitrarily in delisting a wolf population that lacked evidence of genetic exchange between subpopulations, and shouldn’t have approved Wyoming’s wolf management plan because it failed to commit to manage for at least 15 breeding pairs.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then pulled its plan, but reissued it without delisting wolves in Wyoming shortly before the Bush administration left office. The Obama administration put a hold on the delisting, but upon review decided to move forward.
Tens of thousands of gray wolves once roamed North America but were trapped, poisoned and shot until near extinction in the United States. They were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and reintroduction efforts began in 1994.
The Wyoming lawsuit hadn’t been posted as of press time.