April 11, 2011

Protections For Endangered Wolves Still Up In Air

US District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Montana has halted a state proposal to lift the endangered species protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, the Associated Press (AP) reports. The plan would have resulted in public hunting of up to 1,300 wolves in the two states.

Molloy cited the court's lack of authority to put part of an endangered species population under state management exposing that population to hunting. The judge noted, "Congress has clearly determined that animals on the ESA (Endangered Species Act) must be protected as such," and the court couldn't "exercise its discretion to allow what Congress forbids."

Molloy claimed he couldn't approve the proposed settlement because not all of the parties agreed with it. Although a portion of the argument for the settlement was that it could end litigation, Molloy explained it was not likely due to opposition by some to the proposed settlement.

On the same day, Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson announced the wolves in question would be removed from the endangered list under the pending congressional budget bill.

One of the reasons the 10 conservation groups entered into the settlement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service was hopes that a favorable court decision would provide greater protection for wolves than lawmakers might provide. Wolf attacks on livestock and game herds have been increasing in number for the last several years resulting in pushback of the ESA from ranchers in the states.

The fears of the conservation groups concerning lawmakers removing federal protections for wolves also became more real with the ruling.

Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council explained to AP: "The congressional threat was very much on people's minds when we negotiated the settlement. In light of the court ruling, it's going to make it more difficult to derail the rider that may well be attached to the budget deal that will provide much fewer protections for wolves than the settlement would have."

"I can't blame Molloy for the ruling. It's a very tortuous situation. We entered into a settlement agreement we didn't love but thought it was the lesser of two evils," claims Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the 10 conservation groups favoring the settlement.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit that did not agree to the settlement, said Molloy's rulings have consistently followed federal law, and his rejection of the settlement followed those same principles. Just because some of the plaintiffs agreed to the settlement doesn't make the deal any more legal, said Michael Garrity, the group's executive director.

"We think the fastest way to remove (wolves) is for everybody to work together so they can be legally removed from the endangered species list," Garrity told AP's Keith Ridler.

Suckling said the center wouldn't appeal Molloy's decision, but was making plans to stop the wolf rider on the budget bill pending before Congress.

Wetzler said his group would do the same, but was reserved about the possibility of success. "Idaho and Montana have long maintained that they can responsibly manage wolf populations," he said. "They may get the chance to prove that. And we'll be watching."

Garrity said of the rider, "Bad news for wolves. We don't think congress should gerrymander the Endangered Species Act."


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