The seesaw battle over wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains took an upswing for hunters, ranchers and wildlife managers over the weekend, as the budget bill hammered out by Congress Friday evening included a provision that would delist gray wolves in both Montana and Idaho.
While that agreement averted a government shutdown less than an hour before it was set to start, it also made the outcome of a federal judge’s decision on a separate wolf delisting proposal largely academic.
Concerned that Congress would indeed take the matter of delisting gray wolves into its own hands after years of litigation, and fearing they would have no control over that process, 10 environmental groups reached a settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March to delist wolves in Montana and Idaho. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy denied that agreement on Saturday, however, citing the fact that four of the original 14 plaintiffs that filed suit to keep wolves on the endangered species list had not agreed to the delisting settlement.
The settlement agreement essentially asked Molloy to reverse his August 2010 decision to reinstate Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, while maintaining protections for gray wolves in Wyoming, Utah, Oregon and Washington.
“No matter how useful a course of conduct might be to achieve a certain end, no matter how beneficial or noble the end, the limit of power granted to the District Court must abide by the responsibilities that flow from past political decisions made by the Congress,” Molloy wrote in his 24-page decision. “The law cannot be ignored to accommodate a partial settlement. The rule of law does not afford the District Court the power to decide a legal issue but then at the behest of some of the litigants to reverse course and permit what the Congress has forbidden because some of those interested have sensibly, or for other reasons, decided to lay a dispute to rest.”
Even if Molloy had agreed to the settlement, it would have been superseded by Congress’ action on Friday. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) attached a rider to the federal budget deal mandating that wolves be delisted in both Montana and Idaho, and that provision was included in the final funding bill (H.R. 1473) that was published Tuesday morning.
Simpson and Tester are among a group of western lawmakers that have argued for congressional action on gray wolves to bring relief to hunters and ranchers in their states who have been negatively impacted by wolf predation on big-game herds and livestock. Molloy has overturned three prior attempts by the Interior Department to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies.
“Judge Molloy’s decision has left little doubt that without the passage of my language, wolves would remain under unnecessary federal protection indefinitely,” Simpson said. “If the courts are incapable of recognizing when a species if fully recovered, then Congress will have to make that determination for them. I am glad to see Congress confirm the original intent of the endangered species act by moving to return to state control the management of a species that has met and surpassed even the most optimistic recovery goals.”
Simpson said the language he and Tester inserted into H.R. 1473 directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reissue its 2009 decision to delist wolves in Montana and Idaho and allows for state management, including managed hunts, in those states this year. Wolves also would be returned to state management in Oregon, Washington and Utah, but no hunting seasons have been planned in those states. Oregon and Washington are believed to be home to a few dozen wolves, while no packs and only a few individual wolf sightings have been reported in Utah.
Management plans already in place in both Montana and Idaho, which together are home to an estimated 1,300 wolves, allow for wolf hunting seasons.
“We’ve advocated that hunting is in the best interest of the wolf and the hunters, as well as non-hunters who want to see the wolf recovered,” said Ron Aasheim, spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “I think it’s important that people understand that we have a management plan in place that does just that. We’ve committed to managing for a recovered population.
“The thing that we believe strongly is one of the tools you need to manage wolves is hunting. We need to manage them in balance with other prey species like deer, elk and moose, and also landowner tolerance when they start impacting livestock. We hope [the bill] passes, and if it does we’ll manage wolves responsibly.”
Federal protections would remain for wolves in Wyoming under H.R. 1473, but the bill does protect Wyoming’s ability to negotiate its own state management plan, which, once approved, would allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the entire Northern Rocky Mountain population. Wyoming has been left out of previous delisting attempts because of a wolf management plan that failed to meet U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval, although the state has recently had discussions with federal officials about amending its plan.
Nikki Watts, a Simpson spokeswoman, also said the bill would prevent courts from reversing any congressional action.
“This wolf fix isn’t about one party’s agenda,” said Tester. “It’s about what’s right for Montana and the West—which is why I’ve been working so hard to get this solution passed, and why it has support from all sides. It’s high time for a predictable, practical law that finally delists Montana’s wolves and returns their management to our state—for the sake of Montana jobs, our wildlife, our livestock, and for the sake of wolves themselves.”
H.R. 1473 will be considered by the House and Senate later this week. Simpson is Chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I am confident that [H.R. 1473] gets us closer to our ultimate goal, which is seeing the entire Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population taken off the endangered species list and managed exclusively by the states,” said Simpson. “Not only do wolf populations in the West far exceed recovery goals, but without proper management they have become so robust that they are adversely impacting other wildlife populations in the region and are spilling into other states not in the original recovery area. This language takes an important first step by allowing for a wolf hunt this year in Idaho and Montana and allowing Wyoming to move closer to developing an approved state management plan.”