Vermont Law Top 10 Environmental Watch List 2015

Gray Wolf Delisting Overturned

Deciding whether gray wolf populations are in a fragile recovery from near-extinction, or are so ubiquitous that they can be shot on site as pests, will be part of the decision of both the federal courts and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in parallel litigation and rule-making procedures next year.
Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Since 1974, the gray wolf has been listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 states and Mexico under the purview of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since then, wolf populations in the United States rebounded, jump-started by the 1994 reintroduction of wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park. By 2000, wolves exceeded recovery plan goals and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated delisting procedures for Northern Rocky Mountain (NRM) gray wolves. A series of contentious court battles ensued as U.S. Fish and Wildlife struggled to fit the political demands of state control over wildlife management with the legal requirements of the ESA. Congress ultimately intervened with a legislative rider that delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho. Wyoming stubbornly insisted on designating a large “wolves as vermin” zone across much of the state and instituted wildlife management area policies hostile to long-term wolf recovery.

Negotiations between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming produced a plan which allowed Wyoming to regain control of wolf management in September 2012. The plan, which contained a large shoot-on-sight zone but otherwise attempted to meet the recovery criteria of 10 breeding packs outside of Yellowstone National Park, upset environmentalists. A coalition of NGOs long-engaged in wolf recovery efforts sued, claiming among other things that the Wyoming plan lacked binding commitments.

In September the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia overturned the 2012 delisting of the gray wolf in Wyoming, handing wolf management in Wyoming back to federal wildlife officials, and once again creating a backlash among ranchers, elk hunters and others.  The National Rifle Association and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation intervened in the lawsuit, favoring aggressive wolf management to allow elk and deer populations to return to their pre-wolf unnaturally high levels.

In the year to come, courts will rule on the NRA’s lawsuit, and help determine the responsibility of states like Wyoming to maintain healthy breeding wolf packs. But that ruling will hardly quell the controversy. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed delisting the entire gray wolf population in the U.S. Meanwhile, NRM wolf populations continue to thrive; 2013 U.S. Fish and Wildlife data showed 320 packs and 78 breeding pairs. The success of this recovery stands fragile in the face of aggressive hunting campaigns championed by the likes of Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who wanted to be first in line for the state’s wolf hunt.

National conservation groups demand continued ESA protection for wolves and much broader recovery goals. State governments want their traditional wildlife management authority restored, and the Fish and Wildlife Service clearly wants to move on to addressing other species. Yet the exacting requirements of the ESA continue to confound solutions that are more political than biological. If court rulings further confuse jurisdictional management of wolf packs, or the new rule delists the wolf and environmentalists successfully sue again, the ESA will once again be attacked in Congress, a seemingly never-ending lightning rod of political controversy.