September 1, 2009

Hunters, Activists Await Ruling On Gray Wolves

Gray wolf hunting is set to start in the Northern Rockies just four months after the animal was de-listed from the endangered species list.

Environmental and animal welfare groups have imposed a last minute injunction to stop the killing, about which a federal judge now has to make a speedy decision.

In Idaho, where a quota allows for the killing of 220 wolves, hunters are preparing themselves for the hunt Tuesday. Montana's hunting season begins September 15, with a quota of 75 wolves.

After a three-hour hearing on Monday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, with no telltale sign of what his conclusion would be, simply said he would decide as soon as possible.

According to state wildlife officials, the future of the hunts will wholly depend on the final ruling.

The wolves were once plentiful in North America, but their numbers dwindled drastically outside Alaska and Canada by the 1930s. The Northern Rockies now host about 1,650 of the wolves, due to a controversial program to reintroduce the animals that began in 1995.

The current debate is focused on whether the population can still survive if hunting is permitted. The number of gray wolves has already exceeded the original recovery goal set in the 1990s five times over.

In May, the wolves were officially taken off the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana, and the management of the species was turned over to the state wildlife agencies. Approximately 300 wolves have not been taken off the list in Wyoming because of a state law enabling them to be shot-on-sight in 90 percent of the state.

Around 4,000 hunters have already registered and bought tags to hunt the wolf in Idaho, and Montana just began selling the tags on Monday.

After attending Monday's meeting, Missoula hunter Mac McLaughlin told the Associated Press he was going directly to a sporting goods shop to purchase his tag because he is annoyed with the wolves attacking elk. He said he plans to use an elk call to lure the wolves, but doesn't think it will be effective.

"If the opportunity comes up, you bet I'll shoot one," he said boldly. "There's got to be a balance and our game populations have taken a terrible beating.

In opposition to the hunts, Doug Honnold with the environmental law firm Earthjustice told AP he believes the wolves are still at risk of endangerment. He sees the government as maneuvering the Endangered Species Act to suit its own purposes, and he thinks there are not sufficient safeguards to ensure the gray wolf's survival under state jurisdiction.

"It's the endangered species that need to be protected, not the states' rights to kill wolves," Honnold said.

Representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michael Eitel said the agency would continue monitoring the wolf population and would not hesitate to intervene and re-list the animal on the endangered species list if necessary.

"The Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are doing very well," he said. "Yes there might be wolves that are killed, but that will not affect the population in Idaho and Montana."

According to Honnold, the government "flip-flopped" on previous policy, which was opposed to making decisions about endangered species based on political boundaries, when they decided to remove the gray wolves from the endangered species list in Wyoming.

Eitel admitted to the agency's change in position on the issue, but insisted on the importance of Judge Malloy accepting the most recent interpretation of the law.

Molloy expressed how difficult the decision would be for him to make. "How am I supposed to make judgment as to which of their positions to give deference to?" he asked.