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Gray Wolf Endangered
FILE - This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows a gray wolf. A Federal judge ordered endangered species protections reinstated for the gray wolf in Montana and Idaho.(AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, File)

A federal court judge in Missoula has put gray wolves back on the list of animals covered under the Endangered Species Act, stopping wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho.

In his ruling issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy sided with a group of 13 conservation organizations that sued to restore federal protections, saying that they can’t be delisted in two states — Montana and Idaho — but remain a protected species in Wyoming. Molloy declined to explore additional legal issues raised, saying they weren’t ripe for consideration until this issue was taken care of.

“The Endangered Species Act does not allow the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list only part of a ‘species’ as endangered …” Molloy wrote. “Accordingly, the rule delisting the gray wolf must be set aside because, though it may be a pragmatic solution to a difficult biological issue, it is not a legal one.”

Because the rule does not comply with the Endangered Species Act, he wrote, it is unnecessary to resolve all of the issues raised by the parties.

The groups filing the lawsuit heralded the decision as a “significant victory for wolves, the integrity of the Endangered Species Act, and for all Americans who care deeply about conservation.”

“This ruling gets rid of the Bush administration’s precedent that said they could delist a species in one state but not in a bordering state in one ecosystem,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “Judge Molloy didn’t address the other claims we raised, because he said they didn’t need to. So the net effect is they’re back on the endangered species list and it stops the wolf hunts.”

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission officially asked FWP to immediately appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court and to aggressively seek management options with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

“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,” said FWP Director Joe Maurier. “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.”

Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland said in a statement that his agency believes the gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies achieved sustainable recovery levels as early as 2002, and urged Wyoming to develop a management plan so the wolves no longer require Endangered Species Act protection.

He added that his agency also will “work closely with Idaho and Montana to explore all appropriate options for managing wolves in those states.”

“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,” Strickland said. “In the meantime, we will continue to work closely with the states, tribes, conservation organizations, and ranchers and other landowners to manage wolves and ensure the species continues to thrive and coexist with livestock, other wildlife populations, and people.”

Tens of thousands of gray wolves once roamed North America but were trapped, poisoned and shot into near extinction in the United States. They were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and reintroduction efforts began in 1994. Today, the Northern Rockies are home to more than 1,700 wolves, including about 525 in Montana spread out mainly in the West in 100 packs.

In recent years, Montana and Idaho took over management of gray wolves from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency decided it was comfortable with the wolf management plans laid out by the two states, and later that the wolf population had increased to the point that they could be taken off the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, both states had their first-ever wolf hunting seasons.

However, USFWS didn’t turn over wolf management to Wyoming, because that state’s management plan basically classified them as predators that could be shot on site throughout most of the state. The federal government said Wyoming’s plan didn’t afford wolves enough protection to keep the population intact.

Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said late Thursday afternoon that they’re not sure of the overall effects of Molloy’s decision, issued at 2:45 p.m., but that an important wolf management tool — the scheduled fall hunt — is off the table for now.

“So in Montana, half are still listed as endangered, while half are part of the experimental population,” Sime said, adding that the designations generally split Montana in half horizontally along the I-90 and Missouri River corridor. “That means livestock producers in northern Montana can’t haze, harass or take wolves, even if they’re in the act of harming livestock. In the experimental area, they can do that.”

She anticipates the state will retain wolf management under the existing agreement with USFWS, but it’s unclear whether some of the other newly instituted wolf management tools can still be used. For example, federal Wildlife Services agents recently were given the authority to shoot wolves feeding or attacking on livestock, instead of having to first contact the state for approval.

“That let us know that we got the offending animal,” Sime said. “I’m not sure if we can still do that.

“We’re two hours into a brand new day and have a lot of things to sit down and think about regarding the implications of this ruling and where Montana goes from here.”

Sime noted that the number of confirmed and probable livestock losses had increased in 2010 through the end of July over the same period in 2009. More wolves also were killed in non-hunting situations in 2010 than last year.

This is the second time Molloy has ruled in favor of the conservation groups. The federal government had included all three states in its initial delisting attempt, but the conservation groups sued and Molloy ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily because of a lack of evidence regarding genetic diversity.

The government withdrew the delisting decision, but reissued it later including only Montana and Idaho, leading to the current lawsuit.

Suzanne Stone, the Northern Rockies representative with Defenders of Wildlife, called for a new approach when it comes to a delisting plan.

“It’s time to move beyond the gridlock over wolves. We are, as always, willing to work with the other stakeholders to seek solutions and a more rational, science-based wolf delisting plan,” Stone said, adding that they plan to “expand our ongoing proactive conservation work to minimize conflict between wolves and livestock owners, so there can be a place for wolves and livestock to co-exist on the landscape.”

Montana and Idaho have weighed in on the lawsuit on behalf of the federal government, as has the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, the Montana and Idaho farm bureaus, and the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Along with Defenders of Wildlife and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, plaintiff’s include the Northern Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Project and Hell’s Canyon Preservation Council.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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