Federal Protection Returned to Endangered Gray Wolves in Wyoming

It isn’t often we get good news for wolves, but a court decision on September 23, 2014 made that day’s news cycle very good indeed. Gray wolves in Wyoming will once again be protected, as they deserve, under the Endangered Species Act: their safety no longer vulnerable to shoot-on-sight anti-wolf policies.

Two years ago, as a new staff member, I wrote my first blog post for ALDF called Wolf Hunting: The Final Frontier. In that segment, I explained that in 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the federal protections afforded gray wolves in Wyoming under the Endangered Species Act. By doing so, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handed over control of the fragile wolf population to politicians in a state whose hostile anti-wolf policies will go down in history as extreme and unreasonable.

The D.C. district court invalidated that September 2012 decision yesterday. In their successful lawsuit, Earthjustice represented Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity in court. The court granted summary judgment on the basis that Wyoming was not able to manage the gray wolf population. The judgment states:

the Court concludes that it was arbitrary and capricious for the Service to rely on the state’s nonbinding promises to maintain a particular number of wolves when the availability of that specific numerical buffer was such a critical aspect of the delisting decision.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated gray wolves of the Northern Rockies as a protected species under the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Act was passed “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species may be conserved” and “to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species.” In 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to give management responsibility to Wyoming, even after giving it to Idaho and Montana, repeatedly finding Wyoming’s management plan to be inadequate—critics have called its variations haphazard and cruel. In 2010, the District Court of Wyoming tried to give management back to the state, Wyoming made some minor adjustments, and in September 2012 the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed federal protections to be removed from wolves. In November, after the mandatory waiting period, our conservation colleagues filed suit.

In its judgment, the court found that “The Service cannot rely solely on an unenforceable promise as a basis to delist a species” and cited a variety of precedents where our federal, taxpayer-funded agency relied on “unenforceable statements of intent on an issue that was critical to the delisting decision.” In the plainest terms, the court ruled that Wyoming’s haphazard management of gray wolves—their shoot-on-sight and essentially unlimited wolf-killing policy—will come to an end. Wolves will be protected under federal law in Wyoming once again.

In just a few weeks, ALDF will cohost the 22nd Annual Animal Law Conference, along with the Center for Animal Law Studies, at Lewis & Clark Law School. The theme of this conference is Animal Law in a Changing Environment: Finding Common Ground. The importance of sharing that common ground, coexisting with nonhuman animals in our wild spaces, and working together—animal protection groups with conservation groups and others—to find justice for our earth, is made tangible today.

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