By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The Rocky Mountain gray wolves are back on the Endangered Species List after a federal judge ruled last week that the government did not follow the law in removing the wolves from federal protections last year.

The new ruling means that the wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho that claimed 260 wolves during the 2009-2010 hunting season will not resume this fall.

Environmental groups had fought the delisting, which was made official in April 2009, because they believe the wolves — reintroduced into the region in the 1990s — are not fully recovered and need continued protection.

A coalition of environmental groups argued to the court that the 2009 delisting did not follow the rules of the ESA, because it removed protections for the wolves in Montana and Idaho, but left the wolves in Wyoming listed as endangered. The judge agreed that subdividing the populations of naturally connected wolves was illegal according to ESA requirements.

With the ruling, all the wolves in the U.S., are now under federal protections, included those in the Great Lakes and the Southwest.

“We’re thrilled that wolves, all wolves, are back on the Endangered Species Lists,” said Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, echoing the sentiments of many others in the 13 groups that fought for the wolves in court.

Earthjustice led the legal case, backed by the NRDC, Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Network, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

The new decision opens the way for the federal government to revise its recovery plan for the wolves, which has set 300 wolves (with 30 breeding pairs) as a bare minimum for sustaining the population.

Environmentalists believe a population that small, spread across the Northwest, would endanger the wolves’ long-term survival.

The best science suggests that a sustainable population would number at least 2,000 wolves, Skoglund said. And according to a news statement from the coalition, the wolf population could need to be as high as 5,000 in the region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting in 2009 was preceded by an effort in 2008 to delist the wolves, and there has been court wrangling over the issue throughout the past decade. Opponents of protecting the wolves have argued that they are predators and a nuisance to ranchers. While proponents have pointed out that ranchers can report livestock kills by wolves, and apply for compensation. Meanwhile, there’s pressure from hunters to have a wolf season.

Throughout the charged debates, suits and counter-actions, wildlife advocates have maintained that the federal government needs a more realistic plan for helping the wolves survive, a plan in which packs can intermingle across distances (which requires sufficient numbers of wolves), thereby maintaining a strong genetic line and serving their niche as top predators in the food chain.
“This is the sixth court ruling invalidating removal of Endangered Species Act protections for wolves,” said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s time for the Obama administration to step back from removing wolf protections until they’ve been recovered in a larger portion of their range, including additional areas like the southern Rocky Mountains, Cascade Mountains and elsewhere.”

Those fighting for the wolves have also noted that they are not only valuable to hunters, but vital to maintaining a healthy eco-system, and an even bigger draw to tourists, who flock to the Yellowstone area to view the animals.

“In addition to attracting tourists and boosting the economy, wolves are an important part of America’s wild legacy and living with wolves and other wildlife is a fundamental part of life in the West,” said Sierra Club’s Montana spokesman Bob Clark.

The U.S. government has not announced whether it will revise the wolves’ overall protection plan by raising the minimum numbers or appeal Friday’s ruling.  Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland has said in a statement that the Idaho and Montana wolves will remain protected until Wyoming’s “has instituted an adequate management program, similar to those of Idaho and Montana.” The USFWS did not consider Wyoming’s previous plan to be workable. It required only a small number of breeding pairs to survive. Critics say it treated wolves much as the law treats coyotes, as open game.

For now, many advocates are breathing a sigh of relief that the wolves may have narrowly escaped another bloody hunting season.

“This decision is great news for wolves in the northern Rockies, and a strong rebuke for those who would rather see wolves persecuted than protected,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation with The Humane Society of the United States. “The government’s decision to delist wolves would have led to widespread killings by trophy hunters, undermined wildlife conservation, and set the stage for the hunting and trapping of other imperiled species.”

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