A U.S. District Court in Montana Thursday overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to remove gray wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list.
The court sided with Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation organizations that sued to restore federal protections.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled the entire Rocky Mountain wolf population either must be listed as a threatened or endangered species or removed from the list, but the protections for the same population can't be different for each state.
The USFWS last year allowed the states of Montana and Idaho to take over wolf management. But it kept wolves under federal Endangered Species Act protections in Wyoming because the state had not come up with an adequate protection plan.
"Even if the Service's solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at its heart a political solution that does not comply with the ESA," Molloy wrote in his ruling.
"This decision is a significant victory for wolves, for the integrity of the Endangered Species Act, and for all Americans who care deeply about conservation. The court's ruling makes it clear that decisions under the Endangered Species Act should be based on science, not politics," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife:
In contrast, Montana wildlife officials decried the court's decision that placed what they called the "recovered" Rocky Mountain gray wolf back on to the federal list of threatened and endangered species.
"We believe we made arguments to the judge that he could have relied on to uphold the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to delist the wolf," said Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "We will carefully examine the ruling to determine what options remain open to Montana's wildlife managers."
While the decision takes away state management of the wolf, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission officially asked FWP to immediately appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and to aggressively seek management options with the USFWS.
"If we understand the ruling correctly, Judge Molloy is telling the federal government that because Wyoming still doesn't have adequate regulatory mechanisms to manage wolves, you can't delist the wolf in Montana and Idaho." Maurier said. "We simply can't manage wildlife successfully in that environment. We must have the ability to manage wildlife, to do our job, to seek a balance among predator and prey. As a practical matter, as wildlife managers, we need the authority to respond to the challenges wolves present every day."
The decision reinstates ESA protection for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, with federal law guiding Montana's wolf management options. With the ruling, a general wolf hunting season in Montana is prohibited.
The recovery of the wolf in the northern Rockies is one of the fastest comebacks on record for a threatened or endangered species. In the mid-1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, more than 60 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains was set at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs -- successfully reproducing wolf packs -- and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years. This goal was achieved in 2002, and the wolf population has increased every year since.
The wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountain Recovery Area, which comprises parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, was estimated to be at least 1,706, with 242 packs, and 115 breeding pairs at the end of last year. About 525 wolves were estimated to inhabit Montana, in 100 packs and 34 breeding pairs.
Idaho, too, expressed disappointment with the ruling.
"This is a major setback for responsible wildlife management in Idaho. We have demonstrated our ability to conduct a hunting season in an orderly fashion," said Idaho Fish and Game Commission Chairman Wayne Wright. "It's a shame when legal twists can trump wildlife management. This is not how the Endangered Species Act should work.
"We don't know yet what this means for the upcoming wolf season. But for the time being we have suspended wolf tag sales until we've had a chance to further review the decision."
"We're frustrated; we're angry; we're disappointed," Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Unsworth said. "We've played by the rules, but his decision allows procedural technicalities to overcome sound science and common sense."
Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland said today, "For more than 15 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies, tribes, conservation organizations, ranchers and other landowners have worked hard to recover gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Our collective efforts have brought this population to the point where it no longer requires Endangered Species Act protection.
"Despite this extraordinary success, today's ruling means that until Wyoming brings its wolf management program into alignment with those of Idaho and Montana, the wolf will remain under the protection of the Endangered Species Act throughout the northern Rocky Mountains. Since wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains are now again subject to ESA protection, in the days ahead we will work closely with Idaho and Montana to explore all appropriate options for managing wolves in those states.
"The Service's decision to delist the wolf in Idaho and Montana reflected the strong commitments from the states of Idaho and Montana to manage gray wolves in a sustainable manner. Today's ruling makes it clear this wolf population cannot be delisted until the state of Wyoming has instituted an adequate management program, similar to those of Idaho and Montana."