Wyoming wolves are back under federal projection after a ruling Tuesday by a federal judge in Washington, D.C.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson on Tuesday rejected a Wyoming wolf-management plan that had declared wolves unprotected predators that could be shot on sight in most of the state. Her ruling sided with national environmental groups that had argued Wyoming's management plan afforded insufficient protection for wolves.
"We're thrilled that protections for Wyoming's fragile population of wolves have been restored," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity. "With Wyoming allowing wolves to be shot on sight across more than 80 percent of the state, there is no way protections for wolves should have ever been removed."
Berman ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to trust nonbinding promises from the state of Wyoming to maintain at least 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, outside of Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead issued a statement Tuesday saying that he expects the state to seek a stay of the Jackson's decision. He said the state will seek an emergency rule from the Fish and Wildlife Service to allow continued state wolf management.
"We believe an emergency rule can remedy this, and I have instructed the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Attorney General to proceed accordingly," Mead said. He added that until the judge's order is stayed or modified, the killing of wolves in Wyoming will be under federal jurisdiction.
Mead this spring released a survey that he said proved Wyoming's wolf population was stable and that ending federal protections was the right move. The survey, prepared by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, stated there were at least 306 wolves in at least 43 packs — including more than 23 breeding pairs — in Wyoming at the end of 2013.
Wyoming took over wolf management in late 2012 after the federal government ruled that wolves no longer needed protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The federal government had reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone in the 1990s. For at least the past decade, the federal agency has been through a tortured series of lawsuits involving both the state and conservation groups as Wyoming has tried repeatedly to take control of its wolf population.
Many ranchers and sportsmen in Wyoming say that wolves pose a threat to livestock and game animals, particularly western moose herds, if their numbers aren't kept in check. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association had entered the Washington, D.C., lawsuit along with other groups to argue for keeping wolf management under state control.
Jim Magagna with the Wyoming Stock Growers Association said Tuesday that Jackson's ruling could have a huge effect on Wyoming ranchers if they're unable to kill wolves that prey on their livestock.
"Beyond that, it doesn't make any sense," Magagna said, adding the state has agreed to maintain a minimum wolf population.
"And there's no evidence to show that they're failing to meet that commitment," he said. "I guess what bothers me most is this shows a total lack of confidence in the state's ability to manage its wildlife, including a viable and delisted wolf population."
Montana lawyer Tim Preso of Earthjustice represented conservation groups in challenging Wyoming's plan. Preso said Wyoming must develop a legitimate conservation plan that ensures a vibrant wolf population.
Since it took over wolf management two years ago, Wyoming has held trophy hunting for wolves in a zone outside Yellowstone where wolves weren't classified as unprotected predators. Preso said Tuesday's ruling puts an end to that practice.
"I hope that Wyoming will bring its wolf management regime more in line with typical wildlife conservation management, instead of eradication programs," Preso said. He said he hopes Wyoming will reform its wolf-management regime, which has been unique in having wolves classified as unprotected predators in most of the state.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in recent years has turned over wolf management in Idaho and Montana to those states. Congress passed special language specifying that those state-management plans aren't subject to legal challenge.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, is a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She said Tuesday the issue at stake in the Wyoming wolf litigation is not merely the wolves themselves but the overall integrity of the Endangered Species Act.
The Wyoming wolf-delisting plan Jackson rejected on Tuesday marks the second time the Fish and Wildlife Service has accepted a delisting plan for Wyoming wolves only to see it dissolve under judicial scrutiny. The agency accepted a similar delisting plan from the state a few years ago but then rejected it after a federal judge in Montana voiced criticisms.
Clark said she regards the Fish and Wildlife Service's affirmation of inadequate management plans for Wyoming wolves as disappointing. She said the agency has top biologists, but she added: "These plans aren't meeting the standards that were in play when I was at the Fish and Wildlife Service."