A U.S. judge in Montana on Aug. 5 ordered federal protection under the Endangered Species Act restored to the entire gray wolf population of the Northern Rocky Mountains.
The ruling overturns a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision in April 2009 that lifted wolf protections in Montana and Idaho, opening those states to public hunting of the animals, but kept protections in place in Wyoming.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Montana, agreed with environmental groups challenging the agency’s move that allowing such piecemeal protection thwarts the purpose of the law to save an imperiled species from extinction.
“This stops the willy-nilly killing of wolves,” said Suzanne Stone from Defenders of Wildlife, one of several groups that sued to regain federal safeguards for wolves in Montana and Idaho and to block wolf hunting in those states.
Ranchers called the court ruling a blow to their industry.
“It’s a disappointing decision and puts our livestock in jeopardy even more,” said Carl Ellsworth, head of the Idaho Cattle Association. “Without hunting those wolves, we’ve lost management of them and won’t be able to control the population.”
Montana’s state Department of Wildlife and Parks said it would immediately appeal the ruling.
Once abundant across most of North America, gray wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in much of the lower 48 states by the 1930s under a government-sponsored eradication program.
Decades later, biologists recognized that wolves had an essential role to play in mountain ecosystems as an apex predator.
The Rocky Mountain gray wolf was listed as endangered in 1974, and the Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a restoration plan for the region in 1995 by releasing wolves captured in Canada into central Idaho and the greater Yellowstone area.
Many ranchers, representing a key part of the region’s economy and a powerful political constituency, have vehemently opposed the wolf-recovery initiative, seeing a growing and protected wolf population as a threat to their livestock.
Montana, Idaho and Wyoming game authorities also have bristled at federal restrictions on wildlife management, pressing instead for greater state control.
At last count, in December 2009, the gray wolf population in the Northern Rockies, including Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding region, was estimated at 1,700 animals.
But Doug Honnold, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, said the region’s population would have to reach between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals in order to be considered viable by international standards.
Besides the institution of wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho, lifting Endangered Species Act protections gave ranchers greater latitude to kill wolves found to be threatening their cattle or sheep.
Wildlife conservation groups argue those threats are overblown.
Last year, 192 cattle deaths were attributed to wolf attacks in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho combined, according to the latest Fish and Wildlife Service figures. But in Idaho alone in 2005, more than 102,000 head of cattle or calves died from causes other than predators, government figures show.
Ranchers can seek reimbursement for livestock lost to wolves under a Defenders of Wildlife-run program. That group has spent more than $1.5 million for livestock compensation, as well as for measures to safeguard herds from wolf predation, such as fencing and horseback patrols, Stone said.
Even under the Endangered Species Act, federal authorities are allowed to kill so-called nuisance wolves or wolf packs.
A move to lift federal protections for a separate population of gray wolves in the Midwest and Great Lakes region was abandoned by the government after it was challenged in court by environmentalists.
“It’s a disappointing decision and puts our livestock in jeopardy even more.”
IDAHO CATTLE ASSOCIATION