PINEDALE – In a long-anticipated move, environmental and conservation groups filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over what has been termed the state’s “kill-at-will” policy for wolves in Wyoming. The agency’s decision to end federal protection for Wyoming wolves has been hotly contested by various groups since the effort began.
Wyoming took over wolf management on Oct. 1, promising to maintain at minimum 15 breeding pairs of wolves and at least 150 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park boundaries.
In the six weeks since the state took over management, at least 50 wolves have been killed. Approximately one third of these kills come from unregulated hunting in the Wyoming predator zone (more than 80 percent of the state). Less than 15 percent of the state’s wolf population lives in the predator zone.
According to a press release from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD), as of Nov. 13, 34 wolves have been harvested from the Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (WTGMA) and the Seasonal Wolf Trophy Game Management Area (SWTGMA). At least 16 other wolves have been killed in the remainder of the state.
In the northwestern portion of the state, bordering Yellowstone National Park, 12 restricted areas have been set up with quotas. Once the mortality quota (which ranges from one to eight, depending on the area) has been reached, the area will be closed for hunting.
Prior to Oct. 1, Wyoming’s wolf population numbered close to 350 animals.
The WGFD has released numbers indicating state wolf harvest has been well spread through the hunt areas and no one pack is being overly harvested.
Earthjustice, representing a group headed by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, filed the suit in Washington, D.C. under the claim that the USWFS violated the Endangered Species Act when it approved the Wyoming wolf management plan.
“We filed because the Fish and Wildlife Service has delisted the wolf population without assuring it will be protected by state laws,” Jenny Harbine said Wednesday from Earthjustice’s Bozeman, Mont. office. “We’ve challenged the USFW’s decision to delist the wolves. If we are successful, wolves would be restored to the endangered species list.”
Wolf hunting in the West is not unprecedented. In 2011-12 sportsmen were allowed to both trap and hunt the predators in the states of Montana and Idaho after a Congressional decision that nullified a previous court win by Earthjustice. The hunt was a success, with a combined total of 545 wolves killed. Both states have upped their quota this season, and in a little over a month more than 177 wolves have been killed in the two states.
Due to Wyoming’s anti-wolf laws the USFWS had, in the past, denied to state the right to manage its wolf population.
Under the new laws, wolves present in the predator zone can be killed on sight - shot, snared or trapped. Hunting from a motorized vehicle is allowed, including but not limited to four-wheelers, snowmobiles and helicopters.
Wyoming has been the final state in the northern Rockies to remove protection from the gray wolf. Wolves still remain off-limits in national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as the Wind River Indian Reservation.
The return of wolves to the northern Rockies in the 1990s has been heralded by some as one of the greatest conservational efforts of our time. The past decade has indeed seen wolves return to the Rockies, rebounding with a greater tenacity and in greater numbers than originally anticipated.
However, ranchers continue to insist the animals prey on their herds. Hunters argue that wolves have taken down more than their fair share of big game, drastically reducing elk and deer herds.
Environmentalists counter with the argument that wolves keep herds in check, helping to lower disease numbers and keep overgrazing to a minimum.
Environmentalists have, for some time, expressed concern that opening any kind of hunting season on wolves will push the species back to near-extinction. State officials and hunters argue that with a wise, thought out management plan, wolf numbers can be contained while allowing the wolves the opportunity to live and flourish.
The most recent USFWS estimate totals wolf population numbers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming at more than 1,774 adult wolves. Ideally, USFWS would like to see an average of 300 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone region and a long-term average of 1,000 wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains Distinct Population Segment.
In a statement, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead defended the state’s decision to maintain at minimum 15 breeding pairs and 150 adult wolves, adding that he plans to keep populations above these minimums.
On Wednesday, Denver-based Seth Willey, regional recovery coordinator for mountain prairie region with the USFWS, said it is the organization’s policy not to comment on impending litigation.
“The Wyoming [wolf] population is fairly sizeable and has the capacity to be managed in the way that Wyoming is now implementing,” he said. “Everything is working according to plan, and we are confident the state of Wyoming will continue to manage the species at healthy levels.”
The suit, filed by Earthjustice, challenges the government’s decision to eliminate Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the state of Wyoming. In this suit, Earthjustice represents the Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council.