We’re going to court to stand up for wolves. Today Defenders and our conservation colleagues filed a notice of intent to sue the Obama administration over its regrettable decision to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Wyoming. We urged them not to do it, but last week the administration announced their intention to move forward and today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its final notice of delisting in the Federal Register. The rule will take effect on September 30. So now it will be up to a federal court to determine the fate of wolves in Wyoming.
Why are we taking this important step? We should be celebrating the return of wild wolves to the region. Indeed, the return of the gray wolf to the northern Rockies has been one of conservation’s greatest success stories, and Defenders played a big role in making it happen. But the administration’s premature delisting of wolves in Wyoming threatens to undermine that success.
Once removed from federal protection, wolves in Wyoming will be managed by the state, and Wyoming’s official wolf management plan will turn back the clock on wolf recovery. Outside of Yellowstone National Park, in most of Wyoming, it will be legal to shoot wolves on sight. In a smaller portion of the state, wolves can be legally hunted with proper licenses and regulations. Only in Yellowstone itself would wolves be protected – and woe to any wolf that strays outside the park boundaries. Put simply, Wyoming’s plan means that up to 60 percent of the state’s wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park could be wiped out.
That’s not only bad policy — we think it is illegal. Our lawsuit will argue that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the ESA by failing to consider how important wolves in Wyoming are to maintaining a functioning population of wolves across the northern Rockies. Under the delisting plan, Wyoming could reduce wolf populations outside Yellowstone NP to just 10 breeding pair or 100 wolves. This, combined with aggressive wolf management in Idaho, Montana and other areas of the northern Rockies, could bring the regional population well below sustainable levels. Not only could this undermine regional wolf recovery, but it will undoubtedly hinder the spread of wolves to other areas in the Pacific Northwest and southern Rockies, where they remain federally protected.
We will also argue that the Service’s delisting decision is “arbitrary and capricious” — the legal term for completely irrational. The Service previously rejected a prior Wyoming plan for failing to maintain at least 15 breeding pair in the state. A federal court also ruled that a second, nearly identical Wyoming wolf management plan failed to satisfy the ESA‘s conservation standard. The ESA requires states to have adequate rules in place to ensure the continued conservation of the species before it is delisted. Despite some tweaks, Wyoming’s latest management plan suffers from the same fundamental defects as its earlier plans. It creates a broad predator zone in which wolves can be shot on sight in much of the state, and it fails to guarantee a minimum of 15 breeding pair within its borders.
So today, we filed a notice of intent to sue. That is not yet a lawsuit. Under the Endangered Species Act, litigants must give the government 60 days’ notice of their intent to sue over illegal agency action. The point of this “waiting period” is to give federal agencies an opportunity to correct their errors before litigation ensues. Alas, in most cases, the agencies decline this opportunity to right any wrongs, and litigation moves forward.
Unfortunately, the 60-day waiting period also means that Wyoming will be free to kill wolves for at least a month before our suit can even be filed. Many wolves in the predator zone could be eliminated before we get our day in court. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, and it is a shame that the administration has taken this approach. Our hands are legally tied for now, and Wyoming’s wolves will pay the price.
At the very first opportunity, exactly 60 days from now, we will file a complaint in the U.S. District Court. We will ask the court to declare this rule illegal, and put wolves back on the endangered species list until Wyoming adopts a responsible management plan that ensures the continued survival and recovery of wolves in the region. That’s why we are going to court. We don’t want to return to the days when wolves were recklessly targeted for elimination, especially not after all the work that’s been done to bring them back.