Conservation Groups Appeal Wolf Extermination Order

(12/30/1997) - Legal efforts are underway to prevent a second extermination of wolves in the American West and to ensure the continued flexibility of the law that offers the best hope for restoring the nation's wildlife heritage.

Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) today formally appealed a federal judge's December 12 decision ordering removal of more than 150 reintroduced gray wolves and their offspring now inhabiting Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho as a result of a successful federal reintroduction program. The case, which has tremendous ramifications for other efforts to restore threatened and endangered species, will be decided by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

"No matter what the cost or effort, we stand ready to protect the legal right of all Americans to enjoy the splendor of wolves in our nation's oldest national park," emphasized Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen. "We will fight all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary and we will win."

"We pledged the day the decision came down to fight this madness, and today we're delivering," said NWF President Mark Van Putten. "We will not let a legal technicality destroy one of conservation's greatest victories."

In filing a notice of appeal against a federal district court decision that sided with the American Farm Bureau in ordering the removal, the conservation groups braced themselves for what could be a long legal battle to protect the successful wolf reintroduction program.

The crux of that decision is Judge William Downes' analysis of "experimental populations" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The experimental designation gives federal managers of reintroduced wild species more flexibility to deal with unintended problems that the animals may pose for humans, such as allowing removal or relocation of animals that prey on livestock. But the judge held that the U.S. Department of Interior should not have used this legal mechanism for the Yellowstone and central Idaho reintroduction.

Both conservation groups promoted the use of the experimental designation for years as a means of reducing opposition to the reintroduction and later joined the Interior Department as defendants in the case when the reintroduction first came under legal attack.

Judge Downes stayed his December 12 order pending appeal. If upheld, it is feared the decision would require another government slaughter of wolves, because recapturing the packs would be almost impossible.

"The ultimate tragedy here is for the wolves themselves," concluded Defenders' Schlickeisen. "It is a sad irony when a federal judge orders the effective assassination of more than a hundred wolves in the name of conservation."

"The decision is wrong from a legal standpoint and even worse as a matter of common sense, said NWF Attorney Tom France, co-counsel on the appeal. "No one would throw out a masterpiece that was painted on a flawed canvas. Why would you exterminate thriving wolves to ensure that one of them had a bit more protection under the law?"

Entering the case on appeal is noted attorney Brian O'Neill of the Minneapolis-based law firm of Faegre and Benson. O'Neill served as lead plaintiffs' counsel in the historic civil suit against the Exxon Corporation stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. As chair of Defenders' Board litigation committee, O'Neill has a special interest in issues involving threatened wildlife.

Along with its impact on wolves, the judge's decision raises great concern about other efforts to restore and recover endangered species across the country, including the alliance among Defenders, NWF, and timber workers that produced what is now the preferred option for restoring grizzly bears to the Bitterroot Wilderness. The reduced flexibility of the ESA as interpreted by Judge Downes could jeopardize these common-ground initiatives.

"We cannot restore wildlife unless we look out for the needs of people too," said Van Putten. "The Endangered Species Act is flexible enough to work for wildlife and people," said Schlickeisen, "and we'll fight to keep it that way."

Defenders of Wildlife is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting wild plants and animals in their native habitats. For two decades, Defenders has been a leader in fighting for wolf reintroduction. Defenders' Wolf Compensation Fund, which pays ranchers fair-market value for relatively rare wolf-livestock predation incidents, is credited with helping the wolf reintroduction program to thrive and prosper.

The nation's largest member-supported conservation group, the National Wildlife Federation unites people from all walks of life to protect nature, wildlife and the world we all share. NWF has educated and inspired families to uphold America's conservation tradition since 1936.



Cat Lazaroff, (202) 772-3270