Friday, February 4, 2005

Federal judge rules wolf delisting decision illegal

Decision should have no effect on Idaho wolves or ranchers

Express Staff Writer

The future of gray wolf management in Idaho and Montana is a back and forth tennis match this winter.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday, Feb. 1, that the Bush administration violated the Endangered Species act when in April 2003 it downgraded populations of gray wolves from endangered to threatened.

The decision, issued by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones in Portland, should not affect the ability of Idaho and Montana to exercise increased management of the predators beginning Monday, Feb. 7. In fact, the decision should not affect Idaho at all, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wolf Recovery Leader Ed Bangs.

Specifically, Jones' decision rescinded the April 2003 decision by the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service that divided wolf range into three areas and reclassified certain populations as threatened instead of endangered. Wolves in the southwest remained endangered.

"Interior Secretary Gale Norton tried to gerrymander the entire contiguous 48 states so that wolves in a few areas would make up for the absence of wolves in much larger regions," said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the 19 environmental groups bringing the lawsuit.

"Now, instead of drawing lines on the map based on political considerations, any future lines must be based on science."

The judge ruled Norton improperly applied the policy for designating distinct population segments, extending the boundaries from core areas where wolves are doing well to include areas where they are not doing well.

As a result, the status of populations varied dramatically within the western population segment. They were considered recovered in parts of Montana and considered precarious in Washington. They were extinct in Nevada.

The judge also found that Norton was wrong to conclude that the only significant portion of the wolf's range was the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies, because wolves once ranged over a much wider area of the country.

Fish and Wildlife was examining the ruling, considering what needs to be done legally and biologically to get back on track, and considering whether to appeal, Bangs said.

"It will take us a little bit of time to figure that out," he said.

The court order rescinds federal rules that allow ranchers to shoot wolves on sight if they are attacking livestock, but practically speaking, that only affects wolves in northwestern Montana, Bangs said.

The rule downgrading wolves to threatened never extended to the experimental populations established in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho and the rest of Montana, Bangs said. And while stray wolves have been spotted in states such as Oregon and Washington, no packs have been established in other states.

"We haven't had a wolf killed by a private citizen defending private property since the new rule went into effect," Bangs said. "I think most of it now is more in the potential range."

Sharp criticism of the decision has come from multiple sides. Idaho's congressional delegation used the decision as an opportunity to stump for Endangered Species Act reforms.

"The ESA is driven by lawsuits and advocacy science," said Congressman Butch Otter. "Too many decisions that influence the lives and livelihoods of most of us in Idaho are being made in Washington, D.C. and, even worse, in courtrooms."

But Bangs said none of the accusations he has heard from any side are true.

"That's just rhetoric," he said. "That's just people spouting off. For sure, Idaho's not impacted, even if you read this in the worst possible light. The area north of Interstate 90 has no wolves."

The effects of the decision, in fact, are mostly theoretical, Bangs said.

"There's a lot of speculation," he said. "To tell you the truth, we don't know."

He said the Fish and Wildlife Service can still control problem wolves when the need arises.

What it means

· Ranchers in northwestern Montana—an area home to about 100 wolves that are not part of the "experimental" population in Yellowstone and central Idaho—as well as in northern Idaho can no longer shoot wolves on sight.

· Depending on new maps identifying "distinct population segments," efforts to delist wolves in Wyoming could be slowed.

· The rule downgrading wolves from endangered to threatened was never valid in Wyoming, Idaho and most of Montana, because the population there is considered "experimental," offering more management flexibility.

· A rule allowing ranchers to shoot wolves in Idaho and southern Montana is still valid, as this population is "experimental." Wyoming was not offered that flexibility, as it does not have a federally sanctioned state management plan.

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