Court Victory Saves Yellowstone Wolves

By Cat Lazaroff

DENVER, Colorado, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - The Yellowstone wolves will not be kicked out of their new home, thanks to a federal appeals court ruling handed down Thursday. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver unanimously overturned a lower court's 1997 ruling that the 1995 and 1996 wolf reintroductions into Yellowstone National Park were illegal.

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The gray wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act (Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth, courtesy USFWS)
The 1997 ruling by district court for Wyoming Judge William Downes had called for removal of all the wolves and their offspring. Environmental groups called the lower court ruling a virtual death sentence, because the removed wolves would likely have been euthanized.

On Thursday, a three judge panel of the federal appeals court overturned the earlier decision, allowing the experimental wolf reintroduction program to continue.

"This is a great victory that will help us go forward in restoring the wolves and their ecosystem," said Lois Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice.

The appeals court ruled that the regulations establishing the wolf reintroduction program fully met the requirements of the ESA, and that the Department of the Interior’s USFWS had properly exercised its discretion in applying the ESA to the wide roaming wolves. The court reversed the 1997 order that the wolves be removed, and directed the district court to enter an order upholding the challenged wolf reintroduction rules instead.

"This is a wonderful victory for common sense conservation and the American people," said Mark Van Putten, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the first group to appeal the wolf eviction order. "The court has upheld a balanced approach to wolf recovery that has returned a part of America's wild heritage."

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Wolves are considered a menace by some ranchers (Photo courtesy University of Nevada, Reno)
But some concerns remain over the court’s decision upholding the ability of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which oversees the wolf reintroduction program, to classify such populations as "experimental," and therefore not covered by the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Experimental designation allows ranchers to shoot wolves if caught in the act of killing livestock on private lands.

The gray wolf, a protected species under the ESA, vanished from the western U.S. by about 1930 as a result of hunting and other human activities. In 1995 and 1996, the USFWS released wolves from Canada into remote areas in and around Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho.

The reintroduction was opposed in court by organizations representing western ranching interests, and by some environmental groups, on the grounds that the reintroductions lessened protections for other members of the species that occur naturally in the U.S., particularly in Montana.

In late 1997, the district court ruled that wolf reintroduction regulations were contrary to the ESA because they lessened protections for naturally occurring wolves. The court ordered the removal of all reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone and Idaho, but delayed the order to allow a federal appeal of the ruling.

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The reintroduced wolves at Yellowstone are classified as "experimental," and therefore not protected under the ESA (Photo courtesy USFWS)
"It's a new day for wolves in more ways than one. The Yellowstone wolves have been given a new lease on life and so has the principle that science - not politics - should guide wildlife restoration efforts in America," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

"We’re delighted and relieved that the appeals court has saved these wolves from summary execution," said Doug Honnold of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the lawyer who argued the case on behalf of Predator Conservation Alliance, Sinapu, and Gray Wolf Committee. "Now the hard work begins - making sure that the wolves and their habitat are truly protected."

The appeals court addressed three important issues in its ruling. First, the court determined what conditions must be met before the USFWS may reintroduce an endangered species as an "experimental population" and eliminate its legal and habitat protections. Second, the court determined when an "experimental population" must be treated as endangered species because of overlap with naturally occurring populations of the same species.

Third, the court determined that wolves that were not translocated and released by the USFWS could be designated "experimental." USFWS successfully argued that it had discretion to designate naturally occurring wolves as "experimental," a legal precedent that could allow USFWS to remove the legal and habitat protections for any endangered species.

"We are concerned with the part of the opinion upholding USFWS’s ability to define any animals as experimental," said Honnold. "We’ll continue to work to ensure that wolves and the Endangered Species Act are preserved."

David Gaillard of Predator Conservation Alliance said, "We’re relieved the courts agree that the wolf has a place in the northern Rockies. However, we remain concerned that the government may use this opinion to reduce protections for endangered animals and their habitats."

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The appeals court decision will allow wolves to remain in the sanctuary Yellowstone National Park (Two photos courtesy National Park Service)
Others were more optimistic, saying the ruling could help reintroduction efforts elsewhere. "The 10th Circuit decision means that the Endangered Species Act can be used to restore other species in ways that meet local needs," said NWF attorney Tom France, co-counsel on the appeal. "It can help us unite people to bring back species like the grizzly bear and to stop the decline of others. That's a win for everyone."

Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen noted that, "The wolves are doing better than ever expected . They are reproducing, hunting natural prey, and doing their part to return one of America’s greatest treasures to its healthy, natural state." More than 300 wolves are now found in the region.

"Except for some rare instances in which Defenders of Wildlife has reimbursed the rancher, the wolves are mostly staying away from livestock. It is incomprehensible that the Farm Bureau has been so determined to kill these wolves and their offspring," said Schlickeisen, referring to the efforts of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which was behind the lawsuit, to ban the wolves from the region.

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Some 300 gray wolves now roam the rugged landscape of Yellowstone and the surrounding region
Defenders maintains a $200,000 Wolf Compensation Trust to compensate ranchers, at fair market value, for any losses due to wolves.

"Wild wolves need wild places," said Rob Edward of the conservation group Sinapu. "The battle for wilderness for wolves will continue."

10th Circuit court decisions are available at: http://www.kscourts.org/ca10/index.htm