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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.

Wolf-Hunt-Ready States and Wolf Advocates Face Off in Court

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.

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11 comments

  1. lets hope common sense prevails by this judge. the hunts should go on , game and fish and usfws should be allowed to manage the wolf as well as the ungulates. they want balance. lets allow them to manage the predator and prey.

  2. I don’t understand they “taking” mentality. The sport of killing. These hunters are not hungry for food. They will not be eating this wolf meat.

    What about the Endangered Species Act? Why bother with a reintroduction for it to come to this?

    Read how well Yellowstone is doing now that balance has been restored to the ecosystem. Mother nature is restored. 1.5 million animals are killed each year due to management attempts. Who get to make this decision? Why? I don’t wont my tax dollars going to killing.

    My heart is sickened by the politics of it all. If you don’t like wild life in your backyard…move to the city. It’s your choice.

  3. Johnny Thundersockeye

    Theresa -its come to this because the target numbers for recovery have been exceeded and thus it should then be removed and then managed in a different way,which now should include hunting and hazing for their and our benefit .Hunting them will help the whole species in the long run.You obviously do not understand predator-prey equilibrium or the Endangered Species Act.Please go to the previous article “3 views of the wolf wars “and become educated about the issue before letting your emotions speak.I love wolves and all wildlife -thats why I want to see them hunted!

  4. It does strike me as critically important that grown men should be given opportunity to use high-powered rifles to prove their virility by killing unarmed animals.
    Judge Molloy’s decision is cause for bated breath among all civilized people.

  5. Theresa,

    Nobody wants to manage wolves in Yellowstone. It is not governed by the state. You are one of many that are fed misinformation on this entire issue by the 13 environmental groups. Tax money won’t be used, in fact, the whole process is making money as we speak by having hunters purchase tags. The purpose of this is to manage wolves and not wipe them out. The Endangered Species act does not apply since the wolf numbers have exploded across the 3 states. THEY ARE NO LONGER ENDANGERED!!! Wolves will legally be hunted and will learn quickly to keep their distance from humans which will save livestock and keep them out of trouble for the most part so they can continue to be wild animals. Isn’t that what you want?

    The environmental groups want higher numbers because they know that those higher numbers will never be reached. Once there is a balance they no longer have a reason to accept donations from the people they are misleading. This whole thing is an abuse of our justice system by the 13 environmental groups so they can milk misinformed donors. Why has it taken the judge so long to see this?

    Jeb,
    What is the difference between hunting wolves and elk, deer, etc. How else do you manage animals? Don’t answer that question unless you live in rural Montana, Wyoming or Idaho.

  6. Who says they must be managed, mab?

  7. Who says they must be managed???

    You’re not exactly a heavy weight in this debate are you? Google the entire wolf reintroduction and elk population along with livestock mortalities. You are light years behind on this issue so please bone up on the topics at hand and in a few years your comments might be listened to. Come out west sometime and visit. Where ya from? What do you do? You’re either an out-of-stater or a troll. Please be a mis-led out-of-stater.

  8. I repeat, mab. Who says animals must be managed?

  9. Support the wolves and wolf management. Buy a tag. I have mine, you have yours?

  10. Windage has the right idea, support wolf management. As to the question posted above asking if wolves must be managed, the simple and logical response would have to be YES. Having no plan at all is not an option. I have my tag and people whom want wolves in the state should buy a tag even if they don’t plan on going hunting.

  11. Who needs any Laws for that manner we always do right by each other don’t we? No management means no endangered species list are you ok with that too. Management is for the animal as well as hunter.