A federal judge in Wyoming refused Tuesday to halt a federal effort to bring wolves back to the Rocky Mountain West, clearing the way for the animals’ return to an area where they were exterminated more than a half-century ago.
With the ruling Tuesday, the first of dozens of wolves will be captured in Canada and released in Yellowstone National Park and the wilderness of central Idaho, possibly as early as this weekend, said a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
Turning down a request to stop the wolf recovery program, Judge William Downes of U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, Wyo., wrote that opponents of the wolf-release program had offered only “fear and speculation” that a significant amount of livestock would be lost to wolves.
Federal biologists have been working for nearly 20 years on a plan to bring wolves back to the West, where it is believed they will thrive on deer, elk and moose populations that are close to an all-time high.
With the return of the wolf, “Yellowstone will now have inside its borders every animal that was here when the park was founded” in 1872, said Marsha Karle, a spokeswoman for Yellowstone.
Opponents of the wolves’ return said the animals would be trouble. “We recognize the wolf for what it is: a beautiful animal that is a killing machine,” said William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States
Legal Foundation, in Denver, one of the groups that sued to block the wolf’s return on behalf of cattle and sheep ranchers.
The lawsuit will proceed, but so will the imminent plan to have wolves running across winter snow in the Rockies.
Federal officials will try to bring 15 wolves into Yellowstone and 15 into the central Idaho wilderness sometime this month, with a goal of establishing populations of about 150 wolves in each area.
Sharon Rose, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman in Denver, said the agency would begin work within the next several days to design a schedule for the transplant of the wolves.
“As far as the time schedule and that, we haven’t got the parties together to develop those, so we’re in the midst of doing that,” she said. “Hopefully, everything will start falling into place.”
But Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of the reintroduction project, said the work done in advance of the judge’s ruling could allow reintroduction efforts to begin soon.
Bangs said because some of the wolves are wearing radio collars, they will be easy to recapture and added those efforts could begin as early as this weekend.
Under a special provision of the Endangered Species Act passed in 1982, ranchers will still be able to kill or harass the wolves if they threaten livestock.
A trial later this year, in Downes’ courtroom, could still curtail the wolf program. But experts believe that once the animals are let loose in the wild, it would be difficult, politically and logistically, to recapture or kill them.
Opponents had argued that wolves, which were originally eliminated to make way for cattle and sheep, will stray outside the boundaries of wilderness and park areas and prey on livestock. Federal biologists had estimated that up to 20 cattle and 110 sheep a year might be killed by wolves.
“They’re going to prey on livestock and they’re going to make an already tough profession even tougher,” Pendley said.
But Downes wrote that evidence from Minnesota, where wolves live near dairy farms, showed that wolves prefer wild game to domestic animals.
In addition, they shy away from people. Wolves are listed as an endangered species in every state except Alaska and Minnesota.
If the judge had granted the injunction, the wolf-release program - the product of $12 million worth of studies, more than 100 public hearings and comments from 160,000 people - would have been held up indefinitely and possibly killed, federal officials said.
Opponents of the program said they had not decided whether to appeal the decision.
Renee Askins, founder of the Wolf Fund, based in Wyoming, who led the fight to reintroduce the wolf, said, “Lawyers are costing ranchers more money than they’ll ever lose because of the wolf.”
An environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, has raised $100,000 to compensate any rancher who loses an animal to a wolf. The group’s president, Rodger Schlickeisen, called Tuesday’s ruling “a triumph of fact over fear.”
He said: “Time and again the public has overwhelmingly called for restoring wolves to their home in Yellowstone. So the decision is a monumental victory not only for wildlife but also for the American people and the democratic process.”
xxxx Pro and con “We’ve made it to base camp but not the summit. The summit for me is little wolf paws making tracks in Yellowstone snow.” - Renee Askins, Wolf Fund “For ranchers on the economic edge, the loss of even a few head of livestock can be very, very destructive.” - William Perry Pendley, Mountain States