U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy heard arguments in Missoula today from environmentalists seeking to restore federal protections to wolves and stop wolf hunts –- and from states that want to shoot them.
The hearing in federal district court stemmed from an emergency request by conservation groups to halt the wolf hunts scheduled to start tomorrow in Idaho and on Sept. 15 in Montana. Represented by Bozeman-based Earthjustice, the coalition of 13 groups claims the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) violated the law this May when it delisted wolves and stripped them of Endangered Species Act protections in Montana and Idaho, setting the hunts in motion.
“The hunts would allow the intentional killing of 330 wolves, and that is an irreparable injury under the Endangered Species Act,” Earthjustice attorney Douglas Honnold told the court.
“It’s the endangered species that need to be protected, not the states’ needs to manage wolves,” he said.
Honnold charged that USFWS had further subverted the process by keeping wolves on the endangered species list in Wyoming, where wolf management plans were deemed sub-par, but removing the animals from the list in Montana and Idaho. That type of cherry-picking isn’t allowable under the law, he argued.
“It is legally impermissible to delist state by state,” he said. “How could Fish and Wildlife delist wolves in the Northern Rockies when Wyoming law was clearly inadequate? It could have waited until Wyoming was ready, but instead it plowed ahead.”
The delisting is akin to what government lawyers did under the Bush Administration to justify the use of torture, Honnold continued. “Just as torture memos cannot justify a violation of international law,” so the federal government’s wishes to delist wolves “cannot justify violating the Endangered Species Act,” he said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service’s newly-minted interpretation that would gut the ESA must be rejected.”
Those views and others were the draw for large crowds at the federal courthouse, where pro-hunt protesters in cowboy hats and camouflage gathered hours before the 9 a.m. hearing to wave placards demanding “Common Sense Wolf Management.” The event also drew Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners, officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and — on the opposite side of the issue — dozens of advocates who want the gray wolf protected.
To that end, Earthjustice filed suit against the USFWS in June, claiming that its delisting decision poses “significant threats to wolves’ survival.” On Aug. 20, after Idaho took final steps to put fall wolf hunts in gear, Earthjustice took the added measure of filing the emergency request for an injunction, asking the district court to stop the hunts immediately.
If Molloy does issue an injunction — a decision that is expected to arrive shortly — it will be the second year that wolf hunts have been halted. Molloy also pulled the plug on them in 2008, ruling that the federal government had failed to meet its own wolf recovery standards and that Montana, Idaho and Wyoming hadn’t taken adequate measures to ensure wolf packs could disperse widely and stay genetically healthy.
The issue of dispersal, genetics and, above all, whether wolves faced “irreparable harm,” were key flashpoints again today. An overflow crowd watched the hearing on a monitor set up outside the courtroom. Inside, Honnold told the court that irreparable harm was a certainty if the wolf hunting season took place.
After the hunts, he predicted the Idaho population would drop from 1,020 to 800 wolves and the Montana population would drop from 737 to 655.
“Isn’t there evidence that that’s not likely — that with fair-chase hunting, not many wolves will be killed?” Molloy asked.
“If hunters have a tag and permission to shoot the wolves, the wolves will die,” Honnold replied.
Countering that view were lawyers for Idaho, Montana and the USFWS, who argued that wolf populations are healthy, thriving and not at risk. Since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, their population has grown to about 1,600 in the three-state region, officials estimate.
“Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are doing very well,” said Michael Eitel, a lawyer for the USFWS. “There is no risk whatsoever to the wolf populations. The populations are connected to each other. They’re robust, they’re viable … They’re genetically fit.”
Fish and Wildlife officials aren’t violating the law — they’re using flexibility that the law allows, Eitel said.
But how should “irreparable harm” be defined, Molloy asked Eitel: “Is it something that is more likely than not to cause irreparable harm? … What’s likely: a 50-50 chance?”
“I’m not sure on that your honor,” Eitel said.
“I’m not sure either,” Molloy replied.
Martha Williams, the lawyer for Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told Molloy that wolf hunts in Montana were designed to be as conservative as possible and that keeping wolf populations healthy is a top priority.
Steven Strack, attorney for the Idaho Fish and Game Commission, put it this way: “We are not hostile to wolves. We are committed to managing wolves on a scientific basis. But we don’t know what would ever be enough to satisfy the plaintiffs in this case.
“We started with 66 wolves in Idaho and Wyoming — that first clump repopulated two states,” Strack said. “So why can’t more than 800 wolves be a base population? It doesn’t make sense that 66 wolves repopulated two states, but 800 wolves is not enough.”
Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the courtroom came when Earthjustice attorney Honnold said reintroduction won’t be a success until 3,000 to 5,000 wolves are in the northern Rockies — up to three times more wolves than today’s numbers. The statement drew audible gasps from the pro-hunt contingent.
“We have to ensure the population is high enough so you have this regular genetic exchange and you don’t have to carry wolves in the back of a pickup truck to ensure it,” Honnold explained.
That explanation didn’t wash with John Walters, of Calder, Idaho, a director of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition. He wore a T-shirt that showed two bloody-faced wolves leering above a dead elk carcass.
“Once again, it’s the environmentalists versus the public,” said Walters, standing outside the courtroom at the hearing’s end. “I wonder why there wasn’t more of an argument about the damage being done by wolves to the other game animals,” he said, adding that, in his opinion, elk herds will soon be erased by the predators.
“Most of us feel that wolves are going to reach a point where they’re going to eat themselves out of house and home, in terms of elk and deer. Pretty soon they’ll be coming to town looking for groceries.”
Gary Power, vice chairman of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission (IFGC), said Idaho is fully capable of managing wolves and deserves to be given control. “We would hope that the judge would let the hunts happen, because then you can see if the regulatory mechanisms can work or not,” he said.
As to the 3,000 to 5,000 wolves needed for recovery, “we just keep hearing higher numbers,” Power said. “The goal posts keep moving.”
“At some point, you’ve got to get past the partisan politics and the ideology,” agreed IFGC chairman Wayne Wright.
After the hearing, the crowds in front of the courthouse speculated about what Molloy would do — and what it would mean.
“The idea of the ESA is to get ’em recovered, and I think we’re well past recovery,” said wildlife biologist Bob Ream, a wolf expert and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner. A wolf hunt in Montana wouldn’t result in many killings, Ream predicted — the animals are just too tough to shoot, he said.
“I worked in the North Fork of the Flathead for 15 years and only one time did I ever see a wolf on the ground,” Ream said. “It was moving so fast, even if I had a gun there was no way I could have shot it.”
And if Molloy halts the hunt?
“It’d be a setback,” Ream said. “It’d be really frustrating.”
Idaho’s wolf-hunt plan allows hunters to kill 220 wolves; Montana’s plan sets a quota of 75 wolves. Wolf tags went on sale August 24 in Idaho and today in Montana. Both states say they will offer offer refunds if the hunts are canceled.
Correction: Earthjustice lawyer Douglas Honnold told the court that 2,000 to 5,000 wolves will be needed for full recovery, not 3,000 to 5,000 wolves. NewWest regrets the error and vows to get a hearing aid, ASAP.