Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Are wolves headed back to federal control?

Montana judge hears arguments in wolf advocatesí lawsuit

Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Belts Kauffman. Sign-carrying protesters gather outside the U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont., on Tuesday. The protesters hope U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy will allow the states of Idaho and Montana to retain control over the management of gray wolves.

As up to 75 sign-carrying, anti-wolf protesters stood outside a federal courthouse in Missoula, Mont., on Tuesday, attorneys inside made arguments for and against the return of wolf management to federal control.

Signs with handwritten messages that said "Cap the wolf spill, retain delisting" and "Wolf parasites, double trouble" indicated the depths of some people's anger over wolf recovery.

The decision to either allow the states of Idaho and Montana to retain control over wolves or return it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rests with U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy. Arguments presented during the three-hour court hearing delved into whether federal Fish and Wildlife Service officials violated the Endangered Species Act in early 2009 by removing federal protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana and then turning them over to the two states.

Before adjourning court for the day, Molloy said he would render his decision as soon as possible. How soon that will be was not made clear.

The crux of the issue is whether the Fish and Wildlife Service improperly left wolves in Wyoming out of the 2009 delisting rule. Unlike the agency's 2008 delisting of wolves in the tri-state area—a decision Molloy reversed later that year—the Fish and Wildlife Service retained control over wolves in Wyoming as part of its 2009 delisting because the state's wolf management plan was deemed inadequate.

Environmentalists claim that adjusting management strategies at the Wyoming state line was an arbitrary decision.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ridden roughshod over the Endangered Species Act," argued Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who is leading the case for the coalition of environmental groups. "This split-the-states strategy violates the ESA."

Honnold said the federal government's delisting decision was not based on "the best available science," as the ESA requires.

He contended that requirement refutes those who say that delisting should have occurred when the Fish and Wildlife Service's original recovery goal of 30 breeding pairs and 300 individual wolves was met in the northern Rockies region in 2002. Studies since the original reintroduction of wolves in Idaho and Wyoming in 1995 and 1996 have proved that more wolves are needed for proper recovery to occur, he said.

He said it's wrong to assume that the region can only support 300 wolves, as was originally believed.

"This assumption has been disproven by wolves on the ground," he said.

Honnold said the tri-state area's estimated 1,600 wolves show that the original recovery goals were set too low and need to be revised.

This is the second time Molloy has heard arguments both for and against returning wolves in the northern Rockies to federal control. In 2008, he sided with environmentalists who challenged the delisting of wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and ordered the predators returned to federal control.

"That was the remedy then—we're hoping for the same one now," Honnold said after Tuesday's hearing.

Arguing for the state of Idaho's position was Steven Strack of the Idaho Attorney General's Office. Strack told Molloy that concerns by environmentalists that the states will seek to reduce wolf numbers to minimum recovery levels are unreasonable.

He said Idaho statute requires state Fish and Game commissioners to manage all big game animals—including wolves—at levels that allow for continued hunting. That means that Idaho will maintain at least 500 to 700 wolves statewide, he said.

The Wyoming wolf management plan that has generated so much controversy designates wolves living across more than 88 percent of the state as predators that can be shot on sight at any time of the year. Only in northwest Wyoming are wolves designated as big game animals to be managed under set season lengths and hunting quotas.

Molloy's decision will determine whether hunters are able to target wolves in Idaho and Montana once again this fall.

Idaho's first managed wolf hunt began last September and wrapped up in most hunting zones across the state on March 31. Across Idaho, hunters killed a combined 188 wolves in 12 wolf management zones out of 220 the state had authorized.

In the state's vast Southern Mountains wolf zone, which stretches from the Smoky Mountains east across the Wood River Valley and on to the Idaho-Montana state line, hunters killed all the zone's allotted 10 wolves, including three from the valley's well-known Phantom Hill pack.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials are closely watching the case before Molloy. Fish and Game commissioners are set to consider wolf hunting quotas and season lengths in August should Molloy allow Idaho and Montana to continue managing wolves.

According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, there were about 835 wolves in all of Idaho at the end of 2009, about the same number as Montana and Wyoming's wolf populations combined.

Jason Kauffman:

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