Wolves Back on Endangered List in Northern Rockies

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – Federal wildlife officials said Tuesday they want to remove wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list — again — by early 2009.

That declaration came on the same day a judge restored the predator’s endangered status, as part of a lawsuit filed by environmentalists.

It’s been less than seven months since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stripped wolves of federal protection for the first time since 1974. The decision transferred control over the animals to state game agencies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

But after wolves were allowed to be shot on sight across most of Wyoming — and all three states began planning public hunts — U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in July issued an injunction to block the killings.

On Tuesday, Molloy went a step further, restoring the animal’s endangered status. That means the public dispute over wolves in the Rockies will drag on.

Ranchers and state wildlife agencies want hunting allowed to curb the wolves’ tendency to prey on livestock. Meanwhile, environmentalists insist the wolf population remains in peril and could crash if the states get their way.

Molloy’s Tuesday order came at the request of federal biologists who acknowledged they had failed to prove the animal had fully recovered from near-decimation last century.

Molloy had criticized the federal government’s support for Wyoming’s shoot-on-sight law. And he questioned whether packs of wolves were interbreeding enough to maintain their genetic diversity.

“The judge was pretty clear (we) were going to lose the case if we went forward,” said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator in the Northern Rockies for Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bangs said the “quickest way” to shore up the government’s case that wolves are recovered would be to revamp its proposal, then reissue its rule to downgrade wolves’ status in early 2009.

“We’re talking about getting this whole thing done within 4 to 5 months,” he said.

A Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, Sharon Rose, later cast doubt on that timeline. Rose said internal deliberations within the Fish and Wildlife Service could stretch out longer than Bangs had anticipated.

“The government is a big entity and it doesn’t always move so fast,” she said.

An attorney for the environmental groups that had sued over wolves said they would be watching closely.

“They’re conceding there are flaws, and if they are hell-bent on delisting and just trying to paper over those major flaws, then we’re almost certain to be back in court challenging it again,” said Doug Honnold with Earthjustice. Honnold represented the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and 10 other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The federal government has spent more than $27 million on wolf recovery efforts in the Northern Rockies. In the mid-1990s, 66 wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Their population has grown rapidly and has spread across an estimated 113,000 square miles.

Last month, biologists reported the first dip in that population since the recovery began, from 1,545 animals in 2007 to 1,455 this year. But instances of wolves killing livestock remain common, and wildlife officials warn those will continue without hunting.

In Wyoming, state legislators are scheduled to meet Thursday in Cody to weigh possible changes to their wolf policy in response to Molloy’s rulings. Another option is for the state to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service — most likely in a court other than Molloy’s — and hope for a different ruling.

While state and federal wildlife officials deliberate, ranchers will retain the legal right to shoot wolves that are attacking livestock or dogs. State agencies have the option of killing off entire packs of wolves if they are damaging herds of big game such as elk or moose.

That program also has been challenged in a separate lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of environmental groups. And that case, too, is before Molloy. No hearings have been scheduled.

“Given that wolves are back on the list, this is a live issue that needs to be addressed,” Honnold said.