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Idaho sends a message: It’s fine to shoot wolves

A gray wolf in Pend Oreille County, Washington. Credit: U.S. Forest Service

If the federal courts won’t let Idaho citizens hunt gray wolves legally, the state certainly won’t expend any money or effort to keep people from hunting them illegally.

That was basically what Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter told the feds and the electorate in mid-October. History will show that this program (of wolf management under the federal Endangered Species Act) was a tragic example of oppressive, ham-handed ‘conservation’ at its worst,” Otter wrote. “Idahoans have suffered this intolerable situation for too long, but starting today at least the state no longer will be complicit.”

Shot, trapped, and poisoned for generations, the gray wolf was listed as endangered in all the Lower 48 states except Minnesota in 1967.. (In Minnesota, it was listed as threatened.) Last year, the federal government delisted wolves in the northern Rockies, including Montana and Idaho, both of which promptly opened hunting seasons for them. (In Washington, the Diamond pack, east of Highway 97, was delisted. The Lookout pack, west of the highway, was not.) A coalition of national and regional conservation groups asked a federal court to vacate the delisting rule and tried and failed to get the court to enjoin the hunts.

But this August, in a suit brought by a coalition of national and regional conservation groups, a U.S. District Court in Missoula vacated the delisting order, meaning that the federal government would have to continue protections. The ruling also led to the cancelation of the planned public hunts in Montana and Idaho. The government hasn’t yet decided whether or not it will appeal the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The decision didn’t deal with the merits of delisting. The plaintiffs had argued that the population size was too small, the genetic connectivity with other populations too tenuous for the wolves to qualify as recovered. Those arguments may ultiimately come into play. But the court found that whatever their merit, the law wouldn’t let the Fish and Wildlife Service delist the wolf in two states out of three.

Calling the dispute “Talmudic,” U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy wrote that the “Endangered Species Act does not allow the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list only part of a ‘species’ as endangered, or to protect a listed distinct population segment only in part as the Final Rule here does. . . (T)he legislative history of the Endangered Species Act . . . supports the historical view that the service has always held, the Endangered Species Act does not allow a distinct population segment to be subdivided.”

Whether or not Idaho was capable of managing its own wolf population didn’t matter; Idaho couldn’t go it alone. “The record in this case implies that the service tried to find a pragmatic solution to the legal problem raised by the inadequacy of Wyoming’s regulatory mechanisms, and Wyoming’s choices about meaningful participation in a collective delisting agreement like that engaged in by Montana and Idaho. 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. The northern Rocky Mountain DPS must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population and protected accordingly.”

But protected by whom?

The feds have formally taken over, but they clearly don’t want to do it. They have, after all, been trying to delist wolves in the northern Rockies so that they don’t have to. They have responded to pressure from the states, within which some ranchers and hunters would like to see more wolves in their gun sights and a lot of people would like to see less regulation by the feds. Some observers also assume Fish and Wildlife officials have acted partly from a desire to have a success story: If the wolves have recovered, the system works.

The government initially tried to delist all wolves in the northern Rockies, including the main populations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. All three states had drawn up management plans. Wyoming’s was clearly inadequate. Conservationists got an injunction against delisting, and the government — abandoning an obvious losing hand — asked for and got a voluntary remand so that it could revise the proposal. When the feds tried again, they left Wyoming’s wolf population on the protected list. This decision had, clearly owed a lot more to politics than to science. Molloy said last year that the plaintiffs would probably win.

Part of the rational for delisting and hunting wolves in Idaho and Montana had been that the gray predators threatened livestock and wild ungulate populations in both states. But the plaintiffs pointed out that rules under the Endangered Species Act had permitted harassing, removing or even killing wolves that attacked or threatened livestock, or that threatened the survival of ungulate populations. An estimated 8 to 14 percent of the wolf population had been culled every year for these reasons. In addition, virtually all ungulate populations had equaled or exceeded management targets, so the wolves were hardly pushing them into extinction.

Even without delisting, the feds had outsourced the day-to-day work of wolf protection to the state. State officials have been the ones conducting aerial surveys, collaring wolves to track their movements, examining dead livestock to see whether or not wolves made the kill — and acting as a deterrent to people who want to shoot the animals, legal or not.

The state assumed those responsibilities. But it didn’t have to. There’s no law to prevent it from backing out.

Now — unless and until the feds beef up their own presence in Idaho — no one will do the research or monitoring, and no one will do the enforcement. The real “message that’s being given to people in Idaho is that it’s OK to hunt wolves,” says Doug Honnold, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office. “You’ve basically been given a free pass to go shoot a wolf.”

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