BOISE (CN) — More than 600 wolves have been strangled, shot from the air and trapped illegally in Idaho, five environmental groups say in a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Western Watersheds Project and others say USDA Wildlife Services has been killing the wolves without legally required determination that the slaughter is justified to protect livestock and increase elk populations.
"The agency killed at least 72 wolves in Idaho last year, using methods including foothold traps, wire snares that strangle wolves, and aerial gunning from helicopters," the groups say in the June 1 federal lawsuit.
"The agency has used aerial gunning in central Idaho's 'Lolo Zone' for several years in a row — using planes or helicopters to run wolves to exhaustion before shooting them from the air, often leaving them wounded to die slow, painful deaths."
Elk hunting in Idaho is managed in 28 elk zones. The Lolo Zone, in north central Idaho, begins at the Idaho-Montana Border and includes part of the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness, north across the North Fork Clearwater drainage.
Twenty-one gray wolves in the Lolo Zone were shot from the air on Feb. 10 this year, bringing the toll 657 wolves killed by Wildlife Services in Idaho since 2006, the groups say. They expect other zones to be added to the slaughter.
The program to hunt, trap and kill wolves is the product of a March 2011 Environmental Assessment (EA) and Decision/Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The 2011 EA "claims to evaluate the environmental impact of killing wolves that may have predated upon domestic livestock, as well as expanded wolf-killing meant to boost elk herds," according to the complaint.
But Talasi Brooks, an attorney with Advocates for the West, said killing wolves may actually protect livestock or elk herds, and may be counterproductive.
"The killings don't actually work," Brooks said in an interview.
"The killings trigger compensatory breeding. [The wolves] have elevated levels of stress and reproductive hormones after such kills. There are new studies that say this, and they [Wildlife Services] haven't conducted analysis on this new information."
Brooks said there is new information about "trophic cascades," a phenomenon triggered by adding or removing predators in the food chain, which can bring dramatic changes to ecosystem structures and nutrient cycling.
"Removing an apex predator affects whole communities of life that depend on carrion from wolf kills: scavengers, everything from small animals to beetles. It can also change soil structure," she said.
Western Watersheds et al. say the USDA analysis has been inadequate, and more comprehensive studies are required by law.
"(B)oth the 2011 Wolf EA and Decision/FONSI are deeply flawed because Wildlife Services has never disclosed or analyzed how many wolves may be killed; the ecological impacts of doing so, even on central Idaho's Wilderness; or the cumulative impacts of the agency's killing combined with extensive private hunting and trapping," the complaint states.
"A valid assessment of direct, indirect and cumulative impacts would have shown that Wildlife Service's wolf-killing activities may have a significant effect on the human environment, and thus the agency should have prepared an environmental impact statement (EIS) rather than an EA."
Two months after the 2011 EA and Decision/FONSI, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wolf management was transferred from the federal government to individual states.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game manages Idaho's wolves and adopted new recreational hunting and trapping seasons with "liberal bag limits." The state agency also reverted to a 2002 wolf management plan drafted by the Legislature that abandons the effort to maintain a population of 518 to 732 wolves and adopts a new plan to maintain only 15 breeding pairs, or 150 wolves, the conservationists say in the lawsuit.
Wolf management in Idaho has been a hot issue for years, with hunters and ranchers on one side — many with bumper stickers that say "Save 100 Elk, Kill a Wolf — and conservationists who say the campaign to kill wolves truckles to selected economic interests.
"Ranchers have economic interests that are subsidized by the government with federally funded and sponsored predator killings, which benefit a few small interests," Brooks said.
That's in addition to the state's purported interest in protecting revenue from recreational hunting.
"It is long past time that we base wildlife management decisions on the best available science, not on antiquated, disproven anti-wolf rhetoric," WildEarth Guardians program director Bethany Cotton said in a statement. "Wildlife Services needs to come out of the shadows, update its analyses and adopt practices in keeping with modern science and values about the ethical treatment of animals."
USDA Wildlife Services did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
History of the Issue
Three dozen gray wolves, then protected under the Endangered Species Act, were brought in from Canada as part of the federal government's reintroduction program in 1995.
Reintroduction of wolves created an ideological chasm between hunters and ranchers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the animal in 2009 based on significantly rebounded numbers and, consequently, official wolf hunting seasons were established under the direction of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Endangered Species Act protections were reinstated in August 2010, but wolves were delisted again in 2011.
Today some 650 wolves roam the forests of Idaho, according to Fish and Wildlife. More than 350,000 wolves lived in the West before hunting and trapping nearly wiped them out.
Co-plaintiffs with Western Watersheds are the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Clearwater, WildEarth Guardians and Predator Defense. They claim the USDA is violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
They seek declaratory judgment that its Wolf EA and Decision/FONSI failed to take the required "hard look" at the effects of the proposed action; an injunction ordering the USDA "to promptly comply with NEPA by preparing a legally and scientifically adequate EIS addressing Wildlife Services' Idaho wolf management activities;" ordering it to analyze new and relevant information; and a restraining order.
Co-counsel with attorney Brooks is Kristin Reuther with the Western Watersheds Project, both of Boise.