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.
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."
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.
"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."
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.
"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