If Wyoming wants to resume management of wolves, it must develop a legitimate conservation plan that ensures a vibrant wolf population in the Northern Rockies.
Federal protections for gray wolves in Wyoming have been reinstated after a judge invalidated the US Fish and Wildlife Service's 2012 statewide Endangered Species Act delisting of the species.
The ruling from the US District Court halts the management of wolves by Wyoming, a state with a long history of extreme anti-wolf policies.
In an unusual 'summary judgment' the Court concluded that it was "arbitrary and capricious for the Service to rely on the state's nonbinding promises to maintain a particular number of wolves when the availability of that specific numerical buffer was such a critical aspect of the delisting decision."
The September 2012 federal delisting of wolves in Wyoming turned wolf management over to the state - which opened up over 80% of its land to unlimited wolf killing and provided weak protections for wolves in the remainder. Since the delisting, 219 wolves have been killed under Wyoming's management.
Prior to the 2012 reversal of its position, the Fish and Wildlife Service denied Wyoming the authority to manage wolves in the state due to its anti-wolf laws and policies.
A victory for the wolves, at last!
"The court has ruled and Wyoming's kill-on-sight approach to wolf management throughout much of the state must stop", said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The ruling, he added "restores much-needed federal protection to wolves throughout Wyoming, which allowed killing along the borders of Yellowstone National Park and throughout national forest lands south of Jackson Hole where wolves were treated as vermin under state management.
"If Wyoming wants to resume management of wolves, it must develop a legitimate conservation plan that ensures a vibrant wolf population in the Northern Rockies."
The conservation groups joined to challenge the 2012 decision on grounds that Wyoming law authorized unlimited wolf killing in a 'predator zone' that extended throughout most of the state, and provided inadequate protection for wolves even where killing was regulated.
Now, an even bigger battle ahead
An even bigger battle is now looming, as the Fish and Wildlife Service is currently proposing to remove Endangered Species Act protection for most gray wolves across the United States. A final decision could be made later this year.
However the judgement on Wyoming's wolves may force the Fish and Wildlife Service into a rethink as it ponders its implications. In particular, any reliance on non-binding assurances by states on matters of importance in wolf management would likely be subject to sucessful challenge.
"Delisting gray wolves in Wyoming by the Obama administration was premature and a violation of federal law", observed Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark.
Bonnie Rice of the Sierra Club's Greater Yellowstone Our Wild America Campaign commented: "The court has rightly recognized the deep flaws in Wyoming's wolf management plan. Wolves in Wyoming must have federal protection until the state gets it right.
"That means developing a science-based management plan that recognizes the many benefits wolves bring to the region instead of vermin that can be shot on sight in the majority of the state."
The Court did not support other elements of the plaintiff's case in its summary judgment. For example, it did "not find the Service’s conclusion that the predator zone is not a significant portion of the wolves' range to be arbitrary, capricious, or not in accordance with the law."
However it is highly probable that this and other questions will be subject to future legal challenge if Fish & Wildlife persists with its devolution policy.
From 2 million gray wolves, to 5,500
There were once up to 2 million gray wolves living in North America, but the animals were driven to near-extinction in the lower 48 states by the early 1900s.
After passage of the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973 and protection of the wolf as endangered, federal recovery programs resulted in the rebound of wolf populations in limited parts of the country.
Roughly 5,500 wolves currently live in the continental United States - a fraction of the species' historic numbers.