Activists Sue to Block ESA Wolf Delisting

Published April 1, 2008

Environmental activist groups have filed suit to block a federal government plan to allow state management of wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountain region.

With gray wolves set to be taken off the Endangered Species list, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have developed programs that would allow a limited amount of hunting designed to keep wolf populations at current levels.

Although experts expect the federal plan ultimately to be validated in the federal courts, the filing of the suit will block implementation of the state and federal programs for years to come.

Wolf Numbers Exploding

Since the reintroduction of 31 gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996, wolves have rapidly reproduced and fanned out into Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. By the end of 2007, more than 1,500 gray wolves were counted in the three states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has determined wolves no longer require an endangered classification. FWS proposes letting the states manage their own wolf populations, with FWS prepared to step back in and reclassify gray wolves as endangered if the regional population drops under 300.

With the wolf population growing from just the original 31 to more than 1,500 in barely more than 10 years, the resiliency of wolf populations has already been empirically demonstrated.

“I am very surprised the wolf population has grown as fast as it has,” said Ed Bangs, FWS Wolf Recovery Coordinator.

States’ Management Effective

While Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have developed separate and somewhat different wolf management programs, the combined effect of the state management programs is designed to maintain a wolf population similar to current levels.

“The wolf population is doing great,” said Bangs. “The states have been managing them for a few years now and they have been doing a great job doing it. We expect this to continue under the proposed state plans.”

Activists Insistent

In justifying their suit to block state assumption of wolf management plans, environmental activist groups argue a population of at least 2,000 to 3,000 wolves is necessary to maintain long-term viability of the species.

“This is a giant step backward. There is absolutely no reason to begin a wholesale slaughter of the region’s wolves,” said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies wolf conservation specialist for Defenders of Wildlife, in a January 28 news release. “Yet that is exactly what the federal government is willing to allow the states to do: wipe out hundreds of the wolves our nation has worked so hard to recover.”

Bangs disagrees, noting the states’ target of roughly 1,000 wolves ensures plenty of wolves to fend off any future extinction threats.

Conflicts with Animals, People

Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, noted too many wolves can create problems for livestock and endanger big game species such as elk.

“In areas where our big game populations are struggling and not meeting objectives–and one of the primary reasons they are not meeting objectives is predation–we can help them through regulated hunting” of predators, Nadeau told the New West Web site.

Bangs agreed wolf hunting is little cause for concern. “We are encouraging people to ignore the rhetoric and hysteria and search for the truth. Some limited, highly regulated hunting will be allowed, but this will have very little effect on overall wolf populations,” said Bangs.

Bangs says wolves have already filled all suitable wolf habitat in the region. “Many more wolves would lead to undesirable conflict with people,” he said.

E. Jay Donovan ([email protected]) is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.