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October 20, 2008

A timely decision...

We couldn't have time it better... during Wolf Awareness Week, a U.S. District Court in Missoula officially granted the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s request to withdraw its 2008 Delisting Rule for Northern Rockies wolves.

On March 28, 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protection for wolves in our region.  Under their Delisting plan, wolves in 88% of Wyoming lost all legal protection and, in less than 24 hours, there were confirmed reports of wolves being killed on sight.  One man claimed that he chased a wolf over 70 miles on snowmobile before shooting the exhausted animal.  That same day, the Idaho state legislature passed a new wolf management provision allowing Idaho wolves to be killed simply for being on the same trail shared with livestock.  During the next month, Idaho Fish and Game commissioners succumbed to pressure from the Idaho anti-wolf coalition and agreed to allow more than half of our wolf population to be killed before the end of this year.  As wolf conservationists had warned, these state plans were entirely insufficient to protect the regional wolf population.  We immediately filed an emergency request for an injunction to stop delisting and restore federal protection for wolves.  On July 18, 2008, the U.S. District Court in Missoula granted our preliminary injunction to wolf conservation temporarily placing Northern Rockies wolves back under federal protection and preventing the hunts from going forward but not before we lost all the known wolves in southwestern Wyoming.  These animals and their pups had already been killed.    

Today, we have renewed hope for wolves in our region.  On October 14, 2008, the U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana granted the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s request to officially withdraw its 2008 Delisting Rule for Northern Rockies wolves.  Wolves are now back on the federal Endangered Species List throughout Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah.  While this legal victory stops the wolf hunts and indiscriminate killing of wolves in our region for now, it means that the Delisting process will now start over again.  This time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s needs to adhere to its original 1994 minimum recovery plan for gray wolves in the region that requires that wolves in each of the three recovery areas (central Idaho, NW Montana and Yellowstone) be connected as one “metapopulation.”  That means the various packs of wolves need to be able to reach each other in order to breed and raise pups without inbreeding.  The Service’s own research proved that at 2004’s population levels, which were nearly three times higher than the recovery number of 30 breeding pairs, these wolf subgroups were still not connected.  A larger wolf population is clearly needed to ensure the future of wolves in the region.   

Wyoming must change its law that allows unregulated wolf killing in nearly 90 percent of the state.  The Service firmly rejected Wyoming’s hostile wolf management plan in 2003 then ‘flip-flopped without explanation’ by approving the plan with “the same deficiencies” in 2007. But all of the state wolf management plans will need to be improved in order to allow for a sustainable regional wolf population throughout the region including our neighboring states.  This summer, biologists documented a pack of wolves with pups in Washington State and that same day, Oregon wolf biologists discovered the state’s first documented wolf pack and pups since the species was eradicated in the 1930s.  Biologists are celebrating this news because the return of wolves means that these ecosystems can sustain greater biodiversity of other native species. If we manage wolves responsibly in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, we will see more successes like this played out in neighboring states.   

What about managing wolves in the meantime?  Reinstating federal protection for wolves in the region still allows the states to manage wolves. State agencies can still help livestock owners with conflict prevention measures to avoid losses and wolves that switch to preying on livestock can still be killed.  Defenders of Wildlife and other groups will continue to actively work with livestock owners and agencies to help provide the tools and methods that reduce losses to wolves and other native carnivores. 

Ultimately, we do want to see wolves relieved of their federal protections and managed by the states in a responsible and sustainable manner.  But this time, we need a process that brings together a balance of stakeholders to craft wolf and livestock management plans based on solid science.  As westerners who share a deep respect for our natural resources, we can make this a reality.  We have another chance to get it right this time.   

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