HELENA – A federal judge on Thursday reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana, saying the government made a political decision in removing the protections from just two of the three states where Rocky Mountain wolves roam.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said in his ruling that the entire Rocky Mountain wolf population either must be listed as an endangered species or removed from the list, but the protections for the same population can’t be different for each state.
Thursday’s ruling casts uncertainty on the upcoming fall wolf hunt in both states.
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned over wolf management to Montana and Idaho wildlife officials but left federal endangered species protections in place for wolves in Wyoming, where state law is considered hostile to the animals’ survival.
“Even if the Service’s solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at its heart a political solution that does not comply with the ESA,” Molloy wrote in his ruling.
In Idaho, the congressional delegation and state wildlife managers expressed frustration with the ruling.
“Judge Molloy ignored the exploding population of wolves in Idaho and the constitutional 10th Amendment right of a state to manage its own wildlife populations,” said a statement released by U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick. “We remain convinced Idaho can manage wolves in a sustainable way. … We look for a more reasonable decision from a higher court.”
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game immediately suspended sales of wolf tags for the fall hunt.
“We’re frustrated; we’re angry; we’re disappointed,” said Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Jim Unsworth. “We played by the rules, but (Molloy’s) decision allows procedural technicalities to overcome common sense.”
Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other wildlife advocates sued the federal government after the Fish and Wildlife Service decision in April 2009. They argued that the government’s decision would have set a precedent allowing the government to arbitrarily choose which animals should be protected and where.
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, but following a reintroduction program in the mid-1990s, there are now more than 1,700 in the Northern Rockies.
Doug Honnold, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said he was gratified by the ruling, though he is sure there will be another chapter to the story.
“For today, we are celebrating that the approach we thought was flatly illegal has been rejected. The troubling consequences for the Endangered Species Act have been averted and the wolf hunts are blocked,” Honnold said.
The plaintiffs don’t want wolves on the endangered species list forever, but they do want a solid plan in place, said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife. The government’s plan was poorly devised and would have allowed too many wolves to be killed, she said.
“We need a good wolf management and delisting that allows for a healthy interconnected wolf population,” Stone said.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment immediately after the ruling was released, saying they had yet to read the whole decision.
Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Montana has done everything it’s been asked to do in developing its state management program but now will have to apply federal law and regulations once more.
“This puts a spotlight on Wyoming and seeing what can be done with Wyoming,” Sime said.
The increase in the wolf population brought livestock losses for ranchers and competition for hunters for game, such as elk, agency officials said. Wolves south of Interstate 90 in Idaho will revert to their “experimental population” status, allowing some flexibility to kill wolves that attack livestock, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Wolves north of Interstate 90 are fully protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game will continue to monitor wolves’ impact on elk populations, seeking federal approval to kill wolves to protect dwindling herds, officials said.
The loss of a hunting season is a big blow, said Montana’s Sime.
“That’s clearly a management tool that we want to have in the toolbox. We think it’s legitimate and appropriate,” she said.
Both Idaho and Montana held wolf hunts last season. Montana’s kill ended with 73 wolves and Idaho’s with 188.
At the end of 2009, there were at least 843 wolves in Idaho, 524 in Montana and 320 in Wyoming, with more in parts of Oregon and Washington state.