Northern Rockies wolves would lose their Endangered Species Act protections in Montana and Idaho, according to a court settlement announced late last week in a Montana federal court.
The settlement, which would expand ESA protections to the wolves in Oregon, Washington, Utah and Wyoming – the states where wolves are considered to be the most vulnerable — could mean hunting will resume next fall in Montana and Idaho, where there are more wolves.
Separate negotiations are ongoing between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead in an effort to reach agreement on a management plan for wolves in that state. Currently, Wyoming has a kill-on-sight policy for any wolves found outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, plus a buffer of Forest Service land surrounding the parks.
“For too long, management of wolves in this country has been caught up in controversy and litigation instead of rooted in science where it belongs. This proposed settlement provides a path forward to recognize the successful recovery of the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains and to return its management to states and tribes,” said Interior Department Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes.
Of the 14 conservation groups that joined a 2008 lawsuit to protect wolves, 10 agreed to a settlement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Yet four plaintiffs – the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Western Watersheds, Humane Society of the United States and the Friends of the Clearwater – did not. The four groups believe U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy has been ruling in their favor and contend there’s no reason to drop the suit for a settlement. EarthJustice attorney Doug Honnold, who represented the 14, withdrew from the case because he was faced with insurmountable attorney-client privilege conflicts.
Indeed, Western Watersheds warns that hunting harvests of wolves in Montana and Idaho, not to mention wolf kills by Wildlife Services, will not be sustainable. In a 2009 “BioScience” research paper, a team of biologists led by Valdosta University’s Bradley Bergstrom ran a wide range of simple population viability analyses with the computer program Vortex, from best-case to worst-case scenarios for wolf population numbers when hunting was allowed in Montana and Idaho.
“In 100 percent of 10,000 simulations for all conditions, the population declined, effectively, to extinction (i.e., 100 individuals, a size well below the 450 at which the (population segments) would need to be relisted) in less than 10 years,” wrote Bergstrom. (He is chair of the Conservation Committee of the American Society of Mammalogists.)
The 10 conservation groups that have agreed to the settlement are Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club and Wildlands Network.
The deal also calls upon USFWS to convene a scientific panel to reexamine the original wolf-recovery goal of 300 wolves. The current tally is based on 705 wolves in Idaho, 566 in Montana, 343 in Wyoming and some 40 in Oregon and Washington. No resident wolves are believed to currently be in Utah.
“Interior will look at wolf recovery in the region, based on the best available science. This is a very big deal,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Conservation groups and independent biologists have insisted that 300 is too low and nonsustainable, calling instead for a population target beyond the current count of 1,651 – perhaps as many as 2,000 to 5,000.
For advocates of the deal, the settlement would allow wolf populations to grow in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Utah, expanding into new habitat with a good prey base.
The settlement is also viewed as possibly preempting Congressional legislation that would have eliminated ESA protections in Idaho and Montana, thus avoiding the precedent of an ESA delisting based on politics, rather than science. The new settlement would become null and void should Congress go ahead and delist northern Rockies wolves, anyway.
“What’s important is that wolves be treated like any other species,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of Land & Wildlife for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said it would have been a terrible precedent for Congress to arbitrarily delist wolves – a precedent that would bode ill for all threatened and endangered species.
Wetzler said there are numerous bad bills working through Congress and state legislatures that would be bad for endangered and threatened species. In a real sense, said Wetzler, the settlement gives Idaho and Montana politicians what they want – delisting and the opportunity to manage wolf populations themselves.
“There’s no doubt that without this settlement,” said Snape, “Congress would have acted.”
Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds, said the settlement sounds like “heaven on Earth” at first, but upon closer examination, has no teeth for enforcement and is filled with vague promises and assurances.
“The settlement does not require U.S. Fish and Wildlife to immediately start using the best science and allows Idaho and Montana to do whatever they want,” said Marvel. “This settlement is unenforceable and removes federal and state actions from court jurisdiction.”
Marvel added that the settlement was a slap in the face of Judge Molloy, asking him for a “what if” or indicative opinion on how he would have ruled had this settlement not been crafted.
Marvel said the pro-settlement groups are hoping in vain that Congress won’t take action to delist wolves. The anti-wolf blogs he monitors indicate that conservative politicians may push harder than ever for a lower-48 state delisting of wolves, in a bill written by U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.
U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., has already signaled her displeasure with the settlement. “I’m afraid that without Congressional action, this agreement is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said in a media release. “The settlement as announced today does not guarantee delisting in Wyoming, and it does not guarantee environmental activists will suddenly come to their senses and halt the lawsuit frenzy.”
Much of the settlement depends on several unfounded or weak assumptions, said Marvel, including whether USFWS really will adopt the best science, or that an Obama administration really wants to protect endangered species over the political goal of turning management of species over to the states. And should there be a Republican in the White House in 2013, said Marvel, then the settlement is completely meaningless.
As bad as the settlement seems to Marvel, he said the worst aspect is that the united front of the environmental community has been shattered, and for what?
Yet both Marvel and Snape agreed that Wyoming Gov. Mead could achieve meaningful change with his wolf negotiations – almost a Nixon-goes-to-China opportunity that a Republican could exploit, but would not be open to a Democrat like Dave Freudenthal, the former governor.
“That’s not a bad metaphor,” Snape said.
“I think Mead is more open to new ideas,” Marvel said.
Still, Marvel noted, Wyoming politics is deeply embedded into the dual classification of wolves, with trophy hunting next door to the national parks, and predator (shoot-on-sight) status everywhere else.
Gov. Mead might not feel any need to negotiate further, said Robert Hoskins, a Wyoming conservation activist. By his reading, the settlement document, “gives validity to the ’87 Recovery Plan, which was analyzed and rejected as Alternative 4 in the 1994 Gray Wolf FEIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement). The ‘87 recovery plan restricts the recovery area to the (Yellowstone National Park) area, central Idaho, and northwestern Montana. This aspect of the settlement essentially gives cover to the (Fish and Wildlife Service) to approve Wyoming’s dual status law with zero environmental/scientific assessment.”
“This agreement actually gives Wyoming what it wants,” Hoskins said.
With a Republican-held House, Marvel expects the worst, while Snape hopes for the best – that the House won’t delist wolves and deal a sweeping blow to all ESA protected species. Marvel said he’s not sure whether there’s an environmental champion in the Senate who will stop a Rehberg bill – not when there’s a lack of leadership from the White House.
And what will Judge Molloy do with the settlement? His role is critical – he’s asked to put a stay on an order he issued last summer, that reinstated wolf protections in Montana and Idaho.