Gray Wolf Delisting Overturned
By Student Ashton Roberts and Professor Jack Tuholske
Summary:Deciding whether gray wolf populations are in a fragile recovery from near-extinction, or are so ubiquitous that they can be shot on site as pests, will be part of the decision of both the federal courts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in parallel litigation and rule-making procedures next year.
Negotiations between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming produced a plan which allowed Wyoming to regain control of wolf management in September 2012. The plan, which contained a large shoot-on-sight zone but otherwise attempted to meet the recovery criteria of 10 breeding packs outside of Yellowstone National Park, upset environmentalists. A coalition of NGOs long-engaged in wolf recovery efforts sued, claiming among other things that the Wyoming plan lacked binding commitments.
In September the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia overturned the 2012 delisting of the gray wolf in Wyoming, handing wolf management in Wyoming back to federal wildlife officials, and once again creating a backlash among ranchers, elk hunters and others. The National Rifle Association and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation intervened in the lawsuit, favoring aggressive wolf management to allow elk and deer populations to return to their pre-wolf unnaturally high levels.
In the year to come, courts will rule on the NRA’s lawsuit, and help determine the responsibility of states like Wyoming to maintain healthy breeding wolf packs. But that ruling will hardly quell the controversy. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the entire gray wolf population in the U.S. Meanwhile, NRM wolf populations continue to thrive; 2013 U.S. Fish and Wildlife data showed 320 packs and 78 breeding pairs. The success of this recovery stands fragile in the face of aggressive hunting campaigns championed by the likes of Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who wanted to be first in line for the state’s wolf hunt.
National conservation groups demand continued ESA protection for wolves and much broader recovery goals. State governments want their traditional wildlife management authority restored, and the Fish and Wildlife Service clearly wants to move on to addressing other species. Yet the exacting requirements of the ESA continue to confound solutions that are more political than biological. If court rulings further confuse jurisdictional management of wolf packs, or the new rule delists the wolf and environmentalists successfully sue again, the ESA will once again be attacked in Congress, a seemingly never-ending lightning rod of political controversy.