Mixed Ruling on Wolf-Hunting in the West

A U.S. federal judge denied a request yesterday by a coalition of environmental and animal welfare organizations to stop the hunts of the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf in Idaho and Montana. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in Missoula, Montana, that the plans to kill more than 20% of the estimated 1350 wolves in the two states would not cause the species long-term harm.

However, Molloy also found that the federal government appears to have violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in May when it lifted protections for the wolves in Idaho and Montana, but kept Wyoming’s wolves safe. The selective delisting of two of the three Northern Rocky Mountain wolf populations appeared to be “a practical determination that does not seem to be scientifically based,” Judge Molloy stated in his 14-page ruling.  He added that the consortium of conservation organizations was “likely to prevail” in its overall lawsuit, which the group filed in June. The suit challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to lift the ESA’s protective shield from the wolves. “The service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science,” Molloy wrote.  “That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious.”

The conservation coalition is considering whether or not to appeal the judge’s decision to let the Idaho and Montana hunts proceed. Idaho, with a population of about 880 wolves, opened its first wolf-hunting season in decades on 1 September; it has set a quota of 220 wolves, or 25% of the estimated population. Montana, which has approximately 500 wolves, will begin its hunt on 15 September, and has authorized a quota of 75 wolves. Hunters in Idaho must ante up $11.50 for a wolf tag; in Montana: $19.00. In Idaho, where the hunt is underway, hunters have killed four wolves. One was a wolf pup that a hunter shot from behind a pickup truck on a public road; that’s illegal in Idaho. The hunter was cited for poaching, and the pup’s hide and skull were seized.

In Wyoming, some 300 wolves remain under federal protection because state law would allow hunters to shoot them on sight in most areas.

Last year, calling the gray wolf  “a conservation success story,” the federal government attempted to remove the entire wolf population (about 1600 wolves total) in all three states from the protection of ESA. But Wyoming’s law proved a stumbling block.  The conservation coalition charged that the state’s law would leave the wolves in “serious jeopardy.” Judge Molloy, who also heard that case, sided with the environmentalists. Molloy also relied on scientific data in that decision, ruling that because the three populations were not yet genetically mixed, the government had not met its own criteria for a successful reintroduction. The Fish and Wildlife Service subsequently restored the wolf to the endangered species list. But this spring, the agency took a new tack, and removed only the Idaho and Montana wolves. Yet in the past, the Service itself has said that a state-by-state delisting of the wolf is not permitted under ESA.

Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains and across the continental United States were intentionally driven to extinction less than 100 years ago. They were reintroduced into this region in the mid-1990s. But a fragmented population of 1600 wolves is still at risk, environmentalists and wolf genetic researchers say, and should remain fully protected until there are at least 2000.