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Gray wolves back in court as rival factions contest endangered species ruling

June 3, 2009 |  4:36 pm


Are gray wolves endangered, or aren't they?  It seems like a simple thing to determine, but the legal battle between government officials (who say the wolves have successfully rebounded) and environmentalists (who say that, although wolf populations have increased, the species is still endangered and needs federal protection) rages on.

In 2008, gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list, and the federal protections it grants, for about seven months.  In October, a judge reversed the decision and reinstated the wolves' endangered status.  But not for long -- just before the presidential changing-of-the-guards this January, the Bush administration announced that gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Idaho, Montana and parts of Utah, Washington and Oregon would once again be delisted.  After the delisting took effect, wolves in those areas would fall under the jurisdiction of state or tribal authorities rather than federal ones.  (Wolves in Wyoming retained their endangered status because, according to the Interior Department, not enough had been done in that state to ensure their recovery.)

Environmentalists hoped the Obama administration would reverse the Bush policy and reinstate the wolves' endangered status.  But in March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the decision to delist the wolves would stand, calling the species' population increases "one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act." 

Not surprisingly, environmentalists vowed to bring the issue back to the courts and did so on Tuesday.  In a lawsuit filed in Missoula, Mont., they argued that Montana and Idaho, like Wyoming, had not taken sufficient action to protect the wolves.  More than 1,300 wolves in those states, they said, should have their federal protection restored. 

"Unfortunately, leaving wolves in state hands right now threatens their survival," said Melanie Stein of the Sierra Club.  Indeed, Tuesday's lawsuit has the potential to block a wolf hunt already scheduled to begin this fall in Montana, the Associated Press reports.

"Taking away Endangered Species protection from wolves in Montana and Idaho while keeping Wyoming's wolves under federal protection completely ignores the best population and ecosystem science," Franz Camenzind of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance said of the Obama administration's policy.  "In addition, we firmly believe that the three states' management plans will lead to the unwarranted death of hundreds of wolves. As much as we wish to have the states manage their wolves, they simply haven't developed adequate management plans, and the federal government is acting irresponsibly by proposing delisting under these circumstances."

In a separate lawsuit filed Tuesday, the state of Wyoming had quite an opposite request for a federal judge: Atty. Gen. Bruce Salzburg asked for his state's 300 gray wolves to be removed from the endangered species list.  Under Wyoming law, most of the state's land is classified as a "predator zone" where wolves can be shot on sight -- but the wolves' federal protection supersedes state law.  Salzburg's lawsuit asks for the federal government to turn wolf management duties over to the state, clearing the way for hunting to resume.

Wolves back on endangered species list -- for now
Gray wolves no longer endangered, says the Bush administration
Gray wolf to lose federal endangered species protection in most of U.S.
Gray wolves scheduled to lose federal endangered species protection next month

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: John Vucetich / Associated Press

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