Environmentalists turned to the federal courts on Monday in their efforts to have federal Endangered Species Act protections reinstated for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains.
Wolves in this expansive area lost their protection under federal law when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the controversial predator from under the ESA on March 28. The delisting extends to all of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as well as eastern portions of Oregon and Washington and northern Utah.
The groups are asking the federal court to suspend state management of wolves until the case is resolved.
In all, 12 conservation groups are fighting the delisting. The groups filed their lawsuit in federal court in Missoula, Mont., challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to remove the region's gray wolf population from the list of endangered species.
The groups claim that wolves should not have been delisted because they remain threatened by biased and inadequate state management plans, specifically in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Also factoring into their argument against the delisting is a claim that the region's wolves lack adequate biological connections between largely isolated populations.
Among the groups that filed suit in federal court was Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization that works with Western ranchers to institute non-lethal measures to keep livestock and wolves separate, as well as the Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project. Bozeman-based Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 12 national and regional conservation groups.
In a news release announcing the lawsuit, Defenders of Wildlife's Northern Rockies Representative Suzanne Asha Stone stated that recent wolf shootings in eastern Idaho as well as near Challis indicate that Idaho does not have adequate regulatory mechanisms in place to protect the wild canines. Stone works with ranchers throughout the West, including sheep ranchers operating in the Wood River Valley.
"The recent senseless and indiscriminate killings of wolves in Wyoming and Idaho clearly highlight the serious problems of the current state plans," she said. "Wolves need to be managed responsibly under plans that are based on current and reliable science."
Stone singled out the case of two wolves shot by a landowner near Ashton in eastern Idaho on April 1. In that case, the landowner allegedly shot one of the two wolves on his property and then pursued and killed the second one on snowmobile.
Fremont County Prosecuting Attorney Karl Lewies recently announced that he would not file charges in the Ashton case.
"Running wolves down with snowmobiles and shooting the exhausted animals is not management," Stone said. "It's far too extreme and unsustainable."
The 12 groups claim the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to strip Northern Rockies wolves of their ESA protections is premature and promises to undo years of hard-earned progress. They say laws guiding wolf management passed in the wake of delisting indicates the states' continued hostility toward the presence of wolves.
The groups specifically point to a new Idaho law signed by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter that allows Idaho citizens to kill wolves without a permit whenever wolves are annoying, disturbing or "worrying" livestock or domestic animals.
They also claim there is nothing in the state's management plans or the delisting rule itself to prevent the killing of up to 80 percent of the Northern Rockies' population of more than 1,500 wolves.
The groups also claim that while the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have worked to ensure that wolves can be killed in defense of property or recreation, they've refused to make enforceable commitments to maintaining viable wolf populations within their borders.
"The sudden and bloody increase in wolf killings since delisting confirms that wolves remain at risk in the West," said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project.
In his statements, Marvel makes clear environmentalists' desire to see the region's wolves continue to expand in numbers to provide the population with greater biological diversity. He said there are many public lands across the West with abundant elk and deer populations that can sustain additional wolves.
"To ensure the survival of wolves, these magnificent animals need to expand their range throughout the Western states," he said.
In other wolf news, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has announced that the state's Fish and Game Commission will discuss the details of a possible wolf hunt in the state this fall at a meeting at the regional Fish and Game office in Jerome on May 21-22. Prior to the discussion of possible wolf hunting season and rules, Idaho residents are being invited to make comments between April 30 and May 16.
To view and comment on details of the proposed hunt, go to http://fishandgame.idaho.gov and click on the "Public Involvement" tab on the page's lower right corner.