Judge Restores Federal Protection for Northern Rockies Wolves

MISSOULA, Montana, August 5, 2010 (ENS) – A federal judge today ruled that gray wolves in Montana and Idaho must be granted the same protections under the U.S. Endangered Species Act as apply to gray wolves in Wyoming.

In a lawsuit brought by conservation groups, Judge Donald Molloy overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the endangered species list.

The court found that the Service’s decision to define Northern Rockies wolves as two distinct population segments in order to exclude wolves in Montana and Idaho from the endangered species list is illegal because it is political determination, not a biological one.

Wolves in the Idaho and Montana lost federal protection under regulations proposed during the Bush era that took effect after Barack Obama became President. Those regulations placed wolf management in the hands of the states if they had management plans acceptable to federal wildlife officials.

Gray wolf in Montana, June 2010 (Photo by Tom Steele)

In their lawsuit, 14 conservation groups argued that this piecemeal approach violated the Endangered Species Act, and today Judge Molloy agreed.

“The Endangered Species Act does not allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list only part of a ‘species’ as endangered,” Molloy wrote.

Wolves, the judge ruled, “can be endangered wherever they are within the range” of the distinct wolf population covered by federal protections.

His ruling takes wolf management away from the states and places it once again under federal jurisdiction.

Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland said, “Today’s ruling means that until Wyoming brings its wolf management program into alignment with those of Idaho and Montana, the wolf will remain under the protection of the Endangered Species Act throughout the northern Rocky Mountains.”

Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said, “This decision is a significant victory for wolves, for the integrity of the Endangered Species Act, and for all Americans who care deeply about conservation. The court’s ruling makes it clear that decisions under the Endangered Species Act should be based on science, not politics.”

Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative with Defenders of Wildlife, said, “While we are pleased by the restoration of federal protection for wolves, the court’s decision demonstrates the problems inherent in the federal government’s current delisting scheme. We need a new approach. We need a federal delisting plan that establishes a healthy, interconnected wolf population and adopts stakeholder-driven solutions to the current conflicts. It’s time to move beyond the gridlock over wolves.”

“Defenders of Wildlife has a long record of being responsive to the livestock community’s concerns, and we plan to continue that and to expand our ongoing proactive conservation work to minimize conflict between wolves and livestock owners, so there can be a place for wolves and livestock to co-exist on the landscape,” said Stone. “Our work to date has shown that collaboration is possible when parties meet each other halfway.”

“And we are willing to work with the states and other stakeholders to ensure that wolves and other imperiled wildlife are managed based on sound scientific principles,” she said.

But Montana wildlife officials criticized Judge Molloy’s decision and said they would appeal it to a higher court.

Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said, “We believe we made arguments to the judge that he could have relied on to uphold the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to de-list the wolf. We will carefully examine the ruling to determine what options remain open to Montana’s wildlife managers.”

Meeting in Helena today, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission officially asked the state agency to immediately appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and to seek state management options from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Since wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains are now again subject to ESA protection, in the days ahead we will work closely with Idaho and Montana to explore all appropriate options for managing wolves in those states,” Strickland said.

“For more than 15 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, tribes, conservation organizations, ranchers and other landowners have worked hard to recover gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains,” Strickland said. “Our collective efforts have brought this population to the point where it no longer requires Endangered Species Act protection.”

Montana officials say the wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountain Recovery Area, which comprises parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, is estimated to be at least 1,706 animals, with 242 packs, and 115 breeding pairs at the end of 2009.

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