Monday, February 22, 2016

Wyoming’s dire plans for the wolves

Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming has begun the new year with an old vendetta:  He aims to take away Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in his home state, allowing it to resume its hostile shoot-on-sight wolf-management policy throughout 85 percent of Wyoming. To that end, he has successfully inserted an amendment into the Senate Sportsmen’s bill (S. 659) that would strip wolves of Endangered Species Act protections in Wyoming, as well as Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and bar any further judicial review of that decision.

Barrasso claims that Wyoming is being treated unfairly because Congress gave neighboring Idaho and Montana control over wolves in those states in 2011. But there is no unfairness in this situation because Wyoming is not in the same position that Idaho and Montana were in when Congress delisted wolves in those states. 

First, unlike in Idaho and Montana, a federal court has found Wyoming’s wolf management plan to be inadequate to secure the species in the absence of Endangered Species Act protections. When the federal government handed over wolf management responsibilities to Wyoming in 2012, the state effectively declared open season on the species across 85 percent of Wyoming and authorized one wolf-killing loophole after another in the remainder. During this time, one wolf that fell victim to Wyoming management was Yellowstone’s 832F wolf, the wildly popular alpha female of Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Canyon pack, a wolf that had been profiled in National Geographic and eulogized in The New York Times as the poster child of the success of the Endangered Species Act in restoring wolves to the northern Rockies.

Although the loss of 832F could not be reversed, the federal decision to leave wolf management to Wyoming’s deficient plan could be. Earthjustice challenged the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decision to hand management of the wolves over to Wyoming and a federal judge agreed with us in 2014, ruling that Wyoming’s wolf plan did not measure up to minimum conservation requirements. This judicial ruling highlights that Wyoming has not stepped up to the responsibility of sustaining a species that the taxpayers spent millions of dollars to recover and that many American revere as a living symbol of the wilderness. Yet Wyoming will reinstate its legally deficient, hostile approach to wolf management if Barrasso’s amendment becomes law. 

That does not need to happen because there is another way to resolve Wyoming’s concerns—a way that would preserve wolves and the rule of law.  Wyoming can address its concerns at any time simply by improving its state management approach to provide an adequate legal safety net for wolves.  To date, Wyoming has refused to do so, and is instead asking Congress to exempt it from legal compliance based on an unfounded allegation of unfairness. 

The language of Barrasso’s amendment mirrors a policy “rider” that was in play last year but ultimately dropped from the federal omnibus spending package for fiscal year 2016. That rider was opposed by 25 senators and 92 members of congress who signed letters to President Obama asking that he reject any anti-wildlife amendments in spending legislation.

We ask those wildlife champions and others to stay strong in opposition to this new legislative attack on wolves and the Endangered Species Act. To be clear, the congressional delisting of Idaho and Montana wolves in 2011 was an unfortunate setback, allowing members of Congress for the first time since enactment of the Endangered Species Act to strike protections for an individual species based purely on political motivations and not on science. Decisions about the management of wildlife populations should be left to science and the rule of law, not politicians. And there is nothing unfair about denying Wyoming an extraordinary exemption from the nation’s bedrock wildlife-protection law when a judge has deemed Wyoming’s plan inadequate and the state can easily take steps to fix its own problems.

Preso is managing attorney of the Northern Rockies office of Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law organization.


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