More than five years ago, the U.S. government determined the gray wolf was no longer endangered in northwest Rocky Mountain states, removing them from the Endangered Species List.
It took until this year for Wyoming to reclaim its right to manage the gray wolf population within its borders.
On March 3, the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) decision to remove Wyoming’s wolves from the Endangered Species List. That was the right decision, says Harriet Hageman, a Board of Litigation member for the Mountain States Legal Foundation.
“[W]e are pleased the Court of Appeals could cut through what are often emotional arguments and focus upon the statutory requirements, the history of wolf introduction and management, and the Wyoming Wolf Management Plan,” Hageman said.
Delisting, a Long Winding Road
The FWS listed gray wolves as endangered in 1974 under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). In March 2008, after multiple state-developed management plans, FWS determined the Northern Rocky gray wolves had recovered sufficiently to delist them returning management to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Idaho and Montana agreed to manage their wolf populations by limiting wolf kills to regulated hunting seasons statewide. Arguing it was necessary to keep wolves from decimating livestock, Wyoming instead pledged to keep the wolf population outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation above 100 animals and 10 breeding pairs, but allowed wolves to be killed year-round in one of the state’s regions.
Environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, successfully sued to block delisting, with a federal court reinstating wolves’ ESA protections across across the Rocky Mountain region in July 2008. FWS delisted the wolves in Idaho and Montana in May 2009. FWS did not delist wolves in Wyoming because it said it was unsure the state’s wolf-management plan was sufficient to maintain wolf populations.
Environmental groups challenged the delisting decisions for wolves in Idaho and Montana and a federal court again put wolves back under ESA protection in August 2010, saying federal protections for the same species cannot differ by state.
Congress Steps In
Congress intervened in 2011, with a rider in a budget bill upholding FWS’ delisting decision for wolves in Montana, Idaho, and in parts of Oregon, Utah, and Washington State.
FWS approved Wyoming’s management plan in 2012, removing gray wolves from the Endangered Species List. Environmental groups successfully sued and blocked Wyoming’s efforts to gain management over its wolf populations again in 2014. This was the decision overturned by the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
With tens of thousands of wolves living across the Rocky Mountain region, the appellate court in 2017 recognized gray wolves in Wyoming were safe from extinction.
Wolf Population Thriving
A three-judge panel unanimously concluded Wyoming’s management plan, even if it treats wolves in portions of the state as predators open to being killed on sight, will not endanger the wolf population.
“The predator area contains only 19% of the State’s suitable habitat, and as of 2011, it contained only 3 of 27 breeding pairs … and 46 of 328 wolves in Wyoming. The Service concluded that even if all of those wolves were killed, the remaining wolves in Wyoming would be sufficient to maintain a recovered population,” the panel wrote.
A recent FWS survey showed Wyoming’s wolf population had grown to 382 wolves by 2015. FWS Wyoming Field Supervisor Tyler Abbott told Wyoming Public Media (WPM) wolves killed at least 134 cattle and sheep in 2016, a record year.
“[W]olves are expanding outside of their suitable habitat and looking for food to eat,” Abbott told WPM.
Calls for Reform
The lesson of these years of legal wrangling is the ESA is broken, Hageman says.
“The ESA desperately needs to be fixed,” said Hageman. “It does little for species protection and makes millions for groups that have little, if anything, to do with actually protecting wildlife.
“We waste millions of dollars every year and do not focus our efforts on those species that are actually at risk,” Hageman said. “States are better than the federal government at wildlife and resource management.”
Kathy Hoekstra ([email protected]) is a regulatory policy reporter for Watchdog.org.