More Howling Madness

By Beacon Staff

Since I last wrote about the wolf soap opera and U.S. District of Montana Judge Donald W. Molloy’s pending ruling – which is STILL pending – circumstances in the high-stakes Endangered Species Act (ESA) political mix have gotten even nuttier.

In early March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) withdrew its appeals-court challenge to U.S. Judge Alan Johnson, who ruled in November 2010 that keeping Wyoming’s wolves listed while delisting Montana and Idaho wolves was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The withdrawal removed a potential “circuit conflict” between the Ninth and Tenth Circuit Courts if each appeals court upheld “their” district judges – a circuit conflict that would bring the Supreme Court into play.

But USFWS’s change of heart regarding Wyoming also cleared the way for the March 18 announcement that 10 of 14 plaintiffs in the Montana lawsuit reached a “settlement” with the federal government, while the other four declared they wanted to see litigation continue. So, instead of a hearing on the pivotal issue of whether the Northwest wolf population is one or many, the March 24 hearing was about something completely different – whether or not Judge Molloy should accept the settlement.

What did the settlement settle? Dang little.

Greens agreed to “allow” tightly monitored hunting seasons (but not a de-listing) in Montana and Idaho. They also agreed to possibly allow hunting in Wyoming and a three-state delisting upon an “approved” plan from Wyoming (which explains the withdrawal move the week prior).

The “settling plaintiffs” further magnanimously promised not to sue against these hunting seasons until March 2016, or to “petition” for the listing of wolf populations, or subpopulations, for three years.

USFWS gave away the store in return: In parts 2 and 3, USFWS agreed to withdraw and resubmit for “public review” within 60 days the so-called “M-opinion” that interprets ESA’s statutory (and fuzzy) “significant portion of range” language. This interpretation is critically used to determine whether a species is to be listed as threatened, endangered – or not at all. Now, aren’t you just dying to dive into the arcana of re-writing the M-opinion? No, you ain’t, but Greens certainly are.

Furthermore, part 8 of the agreement calls for “independent scientists” to put together an assessment, using “what those scientists determine to be the best available scientific information,” on whether the 2009 management plans (under which Montana and Idaho hunted for one winter) assure wolves will be around “for the foreseeable future.”

Who employs the hordes of “independent scientists” needed for this task? Duh …

Taken together, the “settlement” would set the stage for a total rewrite of the “wolf book” – with Greens writing every word. Forget the 15 breeding pairs, or the 150 or 300 wolves total promised in 1994 – what will the new minimum-population “floor” be under the new “science?” 2,000? 5,000? Even more?

If this is a settlement, Elvis is alive.

But there’s hope: Part 14 reads “should Congress, by statute, remove ESA protections for some or all of the wolves in the [Northern Rockies]” – then the settlement agreement is null and void.

If that’s not obvious enough, try this comment to Associated Press by Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity on April Fool’s Day: “We continue to think the settlement is the best step in a political strategy to head off disastrous congressional action.”

A political strategy? Really?

In Congress, two factions are slugging it out: Faction One, led by Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg (R) and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (R), supports completely exempting gray wolves from ESA protections – which would void the agreement, of course.

However, Faction Two, led by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester (both D-Mont.), sucker-punched Faction One. They jammed language in the must-pass 2011 budget bill that would re-implement the 2009 wolf-delisting rule Judge Molloy (and Judge Johnson) shot down.

Taken alone, the Faction Two proposal is a numbskulled half-measure. But, when Congress DOES finally pass the budget (they haven’t as I write this April 6), the Faction Two language will “remove ESA protections,” further “by statute,” for at least “some” wolves in Montana and Idaho.

Therefore, the agreement, including USFWS’s insane gift of a blank “scientific” slate to “independent” ideologues, should be null and void – when and if our dysfunctional, bumbling Congress finally does its job.

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