Who’s Crying Wolf This Time?

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The wolf wars continue to rage in the Rockies. Ever since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from the endangered species list in May 2009, animal-rights activists and hunting supporters (amongst others) have been howling at each other. We covered the controversy from the “hunter harassment” angle back in April, but a federal judge heard different arguments this month about whether the wolves should be placed back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. This time the showdown is Defenders of Wildlife, et al, vs. Salazar, et al.

(The essential wolf breakdown goes like this. People care oodles about what happens to these animals because they, on the one hand, are viewed as livestock-ravaging beasts that will eat your toddlers if just given the chance, and, on the other, as creatures that heroically embody a sort of ineffable American spirit. Cormac McCarthy well encapsulates the latter sentiment in The Crossing, when an old man gives advice to a young man hunting a wolf: “He said that men believe the blood of the slain to be of no consequence but that the wolf knows better. He said that the wolf is a being of great order and that it knows what men do not.” Colors of the wind, etc. You get the idea.)

When they first sued in June 2009, the coalition of 14 groups led by the Defenders, which includes the Humane Society and Sierra Club, failed to get a ban on hunting the animals before the inaugural season started in the fall. Their primary complaint then was that that the Fish and Wildlife Service was rescinding federal protection “despite significant threats to wolves’ survival,” according to court documents. This summer they’re targeting the list-removal process itself.

In particular, the coalition said the government couldn’t use “split protection,” meaning removing the animals from the endangered list in just part of a designated region, in this case the Northern Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah. The line was drawn following the reintroduction of wolves to the area (a very controversial act in itself) during the mid-90s. The FWS excluded only Wyoming in this case.

The U.S. district judge hearing the arguments, Donald W. Molloy, has been to this wolf rodeo before. After the FWS attempted to get the wolves delisted in 2008, the Defenders and others successfully sued in his court. Molloy wrote up a 40-page injunction, citing further need to make sure the population wasn’t threatened. “Congress does not intend agency decision-making to be fickle,” Molloy wrote. “When it is, the line separating rationality from arbitrariness and capriciousness is crossed.”

According to the Montana Missoulian, this time “Molloy questioned whether … all the wolves in the three-state area [should] be recovered before federal protection is removed.” But by the time the FWS delisted the wolves in May 2009, they had evidence that the wolf population was at five times the minimum recovery goal in the entire region. They explained in the federal register notice that Wyoming had been excluded not because the wolf population was still in jeopardy there, but because the state’s wolf management outline (read: plan for hunting) was not sufficient to protect that recovered group. In essence, the FWS said the population was not threatened, but that there was a threat of it being threatened.

At this point, the issues have essentially boiled down to how much flexibility the Endangered Species Act is meant to have, the plaintiffs claiming that the FWS is violating long-standing procedure and the defendants presenting examples of other times delisting has taken place along state lines, as with the flat-tailed horned lizard in Arizona and California. (Though that might not be their best argument, given that the decision to delist the lizard remains controversial. The FWS was court-ordered to reconsider the delisting last summer and then relisted the lizard as threatened this March.)

Molloy was also the judge who ruled last summer that Montana and Idaho should go forth with their wolf hunts, saying he would review the case, and his final answer is expected soon. Meanwhile, the Sept. 1 start date for the Idaho hunting season is starting to loom, once again.

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