Defenders in Action: Northern Rockies Wolves Win!

A federal court sided with Defenders, ruling this summer that the wolf delisting plan illegally removed federal protections from wolves.

© Jess Lee

© Jess Lee

In a significant victory for wolves and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the gray wolf of the Northern Rockies is again a federally protected species. Federal Judge Donald Molloy in August sided with Defenders and other conservation groups, ruling that the federal wolf delisting plan illegally removed federal protections from wolves. The move effectively ends the prospect of state-sponsored wolf hunting this fall in Montana and Idaho.

“The court’s ruling makes it clear that decisions under the Endangered Species Act should be based on science, not politics,” says Defenders’ President Rodger Schlickeisen. “This is very important to all species protected by the ESA, not just the wolf, because of the horrible precedent it could have set by putting politics over science. Had the federal government prevailed in the lawsuit, real wolf recovery would have been set back for perhaps decades.”

Last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rubber-stamped a Bush-era plan delisting wolves and paving the way for wolf hunts in the West, even though states did not have sustainable wolf-management plans in place. The federal wolf delisting plan allowed the states to kill all but 100 wolves per state. Defenders filed suit in June 2009, arguing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law when it delisted just a portion of the Northern Rockies wolf population. The suit also stated that wolves needed an updated recovery plan and that state wolf-management plans were inadequate.

Hundreds of wolves were killed by hunters and government agencies last fall, and even more would have been killed if this plan remained in place, which would have crippled the population by reducing wolves into disconnected subgroups, says Suzanne Stone, Defenders’ Northern Rockies representative. “This puts wolves at risk for genetic inbreeding and disease outbreaks and reduces the important ecological impact they have on the land,” she says.

Considered vermin and completely wiped out in the West by the 1930s, wolves from Canada were reintroduced into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996. Wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies grew until they reached about 2,000 in 2009. That’s the number many biologists think necessary to maintain a recovered population. However, that same year, state-sponsored hunts in Idaho and Montana reduced the wolf population to 1,650. Without Judge Molloy’s decision, this fall’s planned hunts would have dropped wolf numbers even lower.

Defenders is calling for updated science-based recovery objectives that establish healthy, interconnected wolf populations before federal protections are removed. “For that to happen,” says Schlickeisen, “regional recovery goals will need to be updated based on the best available peer-reviewed science.”

Learn more about wolves in the northern Rockies.

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