Federal Delisting of Northern Rockies Wolves Headed for Court

WASHINGTON, DC, February 21, 2008 (ENS) – Environmental groups from across the United States are planning legal action in an attempt to reverse today’s decision by the federal government to remove gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains from the Endangered Species List.

“The gray wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains is thriving and no longer requires the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett said today.

“The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has far exceeded its recovery goal and continues to expand its size and range. States, tribes, conservation groups, federal agencies and citizens of both regions can be proud of their roles in this remarkable conservation success story,” said Scarlett. She said that there are currently more than 1,500 wolves and at least 100 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Gray wolf in the Northern Rocky
Mountains (Photo courtesy USFWS)

The federal government will hand wolf management duties over to the three states on March 27. The northern Rocky Mountain distinct population segment of the gray wolf includes all of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, as well as the eastern one-third of Washington and Oregon, and a small part of north-central Utah.

But conservationists say these wolves are not ready to survive without federal protection.

“Americans will howl with rage when they learn that their government is jeopardizing this iconic animal,” said Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council Montana office. “Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when we’ve made so much progress toward recovering wolves in the Greater Yellowstone region?”

Willcox said the NRDC will immediately notify the federal government of its intent to file a lawsuit challenging the delisting decision on the grounds that it is premature to revoke endangered species protections because the wolves have not fully recovered.

For years, all three states have been urging the federal government to take the wolves off the Endangered Species List and have all stated their intention to allow hunting, trapping and killing of wolves by other means such as poison.

The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains was set at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years. This goal was achieved in 2002, and the wolf population has expanded in size and range every year since, federal wildlife officials say.

“Three hundred animals is not enough for the wolves to survive in the long run,” said Willcox. Far more wolves are needed before the species can be considered truly recovered.”

Earlier this week, NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife filed a petition requesting that the Fish and Wildlife Service establish legitimate targets for recovery of wolves throughout the lower 48 states. The groups want a national recovery plan with regional recovery goals aimed at supporting sustainable populations of wolves in the northern Rockies, the northeast and the southwest.

Defenders of Wildlife, based in the nation’s capital with field offices across the country, has as its executive vice president Jamie Rappaport Clark, a wildlife biologist who presided over wolf recovery as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.

Wolf in Yellowstone National Park
(Photo courtesy National Park Service)

For the Northern Rockies, independent scientists say the recovery goal should be at least 2,500 to 5,000 wolves in at least three interconnected populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. They say that viable populations should also be established in Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington.

Ed Bangs, the head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery project, admits he thinks that 300 wolves are not enough. In a “Science” magazine article on February 15 Bangs said, “I personally think it [the recovery goal] is too low.”

Others in the Department of the Interior do not agree. “With hundreds of trained professional managers, educators, wardens and biologists, state wildlife agencies have strong working relationships with local landowners and the ability to manage wolves for the long-term,” said Lyle Laverty, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks.

“We’re confident the wolf has a secure future in the northern Rocky Mountains and look forward to continuing to work closely with the states as we monitor the wolf population for the next five years,” said Laverty.

“These wolves have shown an impressive ability to breed and expand – they just needed an opportunity to establish themselves in the Rockies,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall. “The Service and its partners provided that opportunity, and now it’s time to integrate wolves into the states’ overall wildlife management efforts.”

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, decades before passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, exterminated wolves from the West,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity based in Arizona. “The Bush administration, acting on behalf of the livestock industry, is attempting to thwart recovery and bring wolves back to the brink of extinction.”

The Center for Biological Diversity and allied conservation organizations sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over its April 1, 2003 rule downlisting wolves from endangered to threatened a prelude to removing them entirely from the list of protected species. A federal court reversed that downlisting on January 31, 2005.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is making the same legal mistake now as it did in 2003, and imperiling wolves’ survival,” said Robinson. “This time, just like last time, this illegal action will not stand in court.”

More than 200,000 gray wolves once lived throughout the United States. Eradication campaigns killed most of America’s wolves by the mid-1930s. Gray wolves have been listed as endangered since 1974, and were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.

Wolves are native to the northern Rockies and have begun once again to restore natural balance to the areas they are reoccupying, by culling weak and diseased elk, deer, and other prey, and dispersing elk more widely across their habitat and away from sensitive wetlands and meadows that suffer from overbrowsing, says Defenders of Wildlife.

Elk populations remain high, more than 400,000 elk are present today in the Northern Rockies. Hunter harvest success remains as high as it was before the return of wolves, the group maintains.

Ranchers are learning to reduce the limited wolf predation on livestock to manageable levels and are compensated for most known losses that do occur by Defenders of Wildlife or by state compensation programs.

In 2007, Defenders of Wildlife wrote wolf compensation checks to ranchers across the country for a total of $154,000, the highest amount the group has paid yet.

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