Wolves caught in cramped limbo after being taken from the Canadian wilderness for release in Yellowstone should be released from their travel kennels, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
Plans to release the wolves into one-acre pens in Yellowstone and into the Idaho wilderness were delayed late Wednesday by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The two-day stay was issued at the request of ranchers who fear the wolves will kill sheep and cattle.
The government pleaded with the court Thursday to let it go ahead with a plan to release wolves in America’s oldest park, warning that the animals were in danger from being kept in their 2-by-3-by4 kennels.
“The crates are not suitable for holding wolves for more than 48 hours,” the Justice Department argued in court papers. “Some of the animals are already showing signs of stress, biting at their cages and possibly injuring their teeth and mouths.”
Four wolves headed for Idaho remained in Missoula, where they were also held in their kennels.
Eight wolves were released into their Yellowstone pens late Thursday night. Cheryl Matthews, a Yellowstone spokeswoman, said the ruling also applied to the four wolves set for release in Idaho, and that they would be moving soon from their holding cages in Montana.
The animals were captured in Canada and taken to the United States under a U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan to restore the gray wolf to the American Rockies some 60 years after it was wiped out by hunters. Wildlife officials believe the wolves will control the population of deer and other wild animals.
The plan called for the wolves in Idaho to be released directly into the rugged mountains of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, while the Yellowstone wolves were to be held in two oneacre pens for at least six weeks so they can get used to their new surroundings.
The order blocking the animals’ release came after a cargo plane carrying 12 wolves had already taken off from Alberta, where the animals had been captured. Canadian authorities said they would not take the wolves back, so U.S. officials said they had little choice but to proceed with their original plan.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie swept her arm around as she observed Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, teeming with wildlife such as bison, elk and mule deer, all prey of the wolf. “It’s going to be wolf heaven if we can just get them out of purgatory,” Beattie said.
Beattie and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt both expressed frustration over the ranchers’ legal challenge.
“We’ve put these animals through a lot,” Beattie said. “They need to be set free. We certainly respect the legal process, but we and the court and the wolves have all been put in a very bad position by all of this.”
National Park Service veterinarian Mark Johnson said the captive animals were doing well so far, but their health could be threatened if they remained confined.