HELENA – Three states have asked to intervene in federal court against a lawsuit seeking to return gray wolves in the Northern Rockies to the endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to remove the animal from the list in March, saying it had recovered from near-extermination in the region. That transferred wolf management to Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and the three states are planning what would be the first public hunts in decades.
Last week, 12 environmental and animal rights groups filed a federal lawsuit in Missoula to block the hunts and return the wolf to the endangered list. In attempting to intervene, the states hope to fend off the litigation so the hunts can proceed.
Officials from the states said Tuesday that they can be trusted to sustain wolves without federal oversight. The hunts, they said, are needed in part to control wolf packs that have been killing an increasing number of livestock.
Bob Lane, chief legal counsel for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, said his state could preserve its wolf population indefinitely while still using hunts to deal with wolves that kill livestock.
“People have supported wolf recovery on the belief that being successful would mean a return of state authority over the animal,” Lane said.
At least 39 wolves already have been killed in the region since losing federal protection. Those deaths came under more relaxed rules for ranchers responding to livestock conflicts and a shoot-on-site designation for the predator across most of Wyoming.
An estimated 1,500 wolves now roam the three states – five times the number federal biologists have said is needed to ensure their recovery. Critics say far more are needed to prevent inbreeding and to better shield the population from the effects of hunting.
For those who want to keep the animal on the endangered list, Wyoming’s “predator zone” has been held out as the most blatant example of the perils of state management.
“There’s never been a species that has gone from being endangered one day to being killed at random across most of its range in one state the next,” said Suzanne Stone with Defenders of Wildlife, the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit.
Stone said the states’ attempt to intervene in the case had been anticipated. Montana filed its paperwork with the court on Tuesday, while Wyoming and Idaho filed late Monday.
Wyoming’s decision to intervene marks a change in the state’s long-strained relations with federal officials over the issue. They were former adversaries in a lawsuit in which Wyoming had sought to get the wolf off the endangered list more quickly.
“The state-federal relationship has certainly improved in terms of litigation,” said Ed Bangs, the federal wolf recovery coordinator for the region.
A spokesman for Wyoming Game and Fish, Eric Keszler, said the fact that all three states want to intervene underscores the broad, regional support to keep the animal off the endangered list.