The Fight for Protecting Wolves Heads to San Francisco's Federal Appeals Court

grey wolf photo

Photo by Fremlin via Flickr CC

The saga of the gray wolves in the United States is taking a new turn. After being taken off the endangered species list earlier this year in a legislative first for the US, environmental groups have been arguing for the return of protections for wolves, which face immediate persecution by hunters. Now three groups are taking the issue to the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

Appealing for Wolves
The New York Times reports that Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Clearwater and WildEarth Guardians filed a notice of appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the removal of the wolves from the Endangered Species List is constitutionally sound, even though he earlier ruled that it was illegal. The environmental groups are hoping to reverse Molloy's most recent ruling.

The appeal is the latest volley in an ongoing battle over whether to allow regulated hunting of wolves in Montana and Idaho, while maintaining Endangered Species Act protection in neighboring Wyoming.

Interior last week announced it had reached an agreement with Wyoming to delist wolves in that state, too, as soon as a new management plan is approved by the state's Legislature

Rebalancing in the ecosystem
Wolf populations have rebounded up to 1,700 individuals across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. However, their numbers could plummet again without protections -- Montana is already selling licenses to kill up to 220 wolves during the 2011 season, which is about 25% of that state's wolf population. It would be a devastating hit to the population. Meanwhile, the Wyoming plan for wolf management would allow the killing of half the state's wolf population. Half!

On the one hand, studies have shown that by removing wolves from the web, elk numbers rise and so too does over-browsing of plants and trees. By keeping wolves in the equation, elk numbers are kept in check along with a healthy ecosystem. However, in Montana, drought and predation by wolves and grizzlies have played a role in bringing the elk numbers way down.

The Yellowstone Insider writes, "The annual aerial survey of the herd conducted during December 2010 resulted in a count of 4,635 elk, down 24 percent from the 6,070 reported the previous year. There has been about a 70 percent drop in the size of the northern elk herd from the 16,791 elk counted in 1995 and the start of wolf restoration to Yellowstone National Park."

It is clear that a balance is needed. The article states that ending the licenses for late-season hunting as well as a reduction in wolf numbers can help bring the population back up -- but it also states that the wolf population inside Yellowstone National Park has dropped from 94 wolves in 2007 to 37 in 2010, with biologists guessing that the low elk populations are affecting the wolf populations.

So it looks as if the wolf and elk populations are starting to regulate themselves and hunting wolves could potentially tilt things out of balance yet again.

Wolves and the court
Still, the larger argument is that of the legality of delisting a species along state lines.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, told the New York Times, "We're continuing this battle because Judge Molloy's ruling fully supports our contention that there is a well-established legal process that applies to every other species and that pure political expediency should not be the driving force over which of our nation's imperiled animals and plants will or will not be protected for future generations."

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More on Protecting Wolves
Not Enough Elk Hunters Left To Kill Montana Wolves, As Desired By State Game Managers
U.S. Congress Removes Wolves from Endangered Species List -- A Legislative First
New Wyoming Wolf Management Plan Proposes Killing Half of States' Wolves
Putting the Endangered Species Act Into Practice, One Wolf Listing at a Time

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