Hunted last year in Montana and Idaho, the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf (Canis lupus) is once again on the federal endangered species list. Yesterday, a federal judge in Helena overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS's) decision last year to remove the wolves from the list in those two states but leave them on it in Wyoming.
Conservationists applauded U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's decision, but state wildlife officials in Montana and Idaho argue that the wolves' rebounding population needs to be better managed, including being hunted.
FWS did not remove protections from Wyoming's wolves because under that state's laws, wolves are considered "vermin" and would likely fare poorly. But conservation organizations challenged the split decision last June, arguing that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) applies to a species' entire population. Molloy concurred, writing that federal protections for the same population cannot be different in each state. The service's split decision, "even if ... pragmatic, or even practical, ... is at its heart a political solution that does not comply with the ESA," Molloy wrote in his ruling. Molloy indicated in a separate case last September that this suit would probably prevail.
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, following a successful federal program to eradicate them in the lower continental states. Wolves from Canada later reentered Montana on their own, and others were released in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park by FWS. With close to 2000 wolves in the three states today, the reintroduction is widely regarded as a great success, although many local ranchers and farmers disagree because wolves attack and kill livestock and elk.
Last year, following FWS's delisting of the wolves, wildlife authorities in Idaho and Montana approved wolf hunts, which reduced the recovering population to 1650 animals. Four wolves that were part of the Yellowstone National Park's wolf-research project were killed in the hunt, leading scientists to worry about the future of this unique, long-term study. Hunts planned this year in Montana and Idaho have been scrapped.
Molloy's decision is good news for all endangered species, says Doug Honnold, an attorney with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Montana, who argued the plaintiff's case. "It means you can't carve up a single listed species and say some parts of its population have recovered and others have not."