A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Congress acted legally when it eliminated Endangered Species Act protections for the Northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves and opened the door to wolf hunts.
The opinion, by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, found that when Congress last year ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections for that distinct wolf population, lawmakers were amending the law and not violating the separation of powers doctrine.
The decision means wolves in the Northern Rockies will continue to be managed by states in the region, which had an estimated 1,774 wolves in 287 packs as of the end of last year. Animals outside of that area, including the lone male that has been prowling back and forth over the California-Oregon border, remain protected.
The appeals panel ruling cited a U.S. Supreme Court case, which indicates that the decision is probably the final say in a fight that involved all three branches of government.
The fish and wildlife agency in 2009 dropped most wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list, saying that the region’s population had grown enough to be considered recovered. Environmental groups sued, and a U.S. District Court struck down the agency’s decision.
Congress then attached a rider to an appropriations act ordering the Interior Department to reissue the 2009 rule. Environmental groups sued the Interior Department, arguing that Congress had reversed a judicial action and thus violated the separation of powers doctrine.
But in an opinion written by Judge Mary Schroeder, the 9th Circuit panel rejected that reasoning. The judges cited a Supreme Court decision in a case involving congressional action that allowed some timber harvesting in protected spotted owl habitat.