By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com
Saying that the federal government missed a mandatory deadline, a consortium of conservation groups filed suit Tuesday to force a decision on whether wolves should regain Endangered Species Act protections in Wyoming.
Four groups claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was required to decide by June 1 whether wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains — Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, plus small parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington — should be declared threatened or endangered. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finding that human killing of wolves threatened the species in Idaho and Montana, obligated the agency to decide on re-listing by the recent deadline.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and Sierra Club filed the suit, which states that the government could also protect gray wolves throughout the West, not just in the Northern Rockies.
A decision to again protect wolves would upend Wyoming’s management plan that includes a hunting season in northwest Wyoming and unregulated killing in a predator zone covering the other 85% of the state. At the end of 2021 an estimated 200 wolves inhabited Wyoming outside Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Conservationists last year filed an “emergency petition” claiming, among other things, that Wyoming’s sweeping predator zone hampered wolves’ recovery in the region. In response, the USFWS found “credible and substantial information” that new hunting regulations in Idaho and Montana may be a potential threat to the species in those states, entangling Wyoming because it holds part of the northern Rocky Mountain population.
Wyoming protested. “Our program, our plan has worked and we believe we have strong evidence to support that,” Gov. Mark Gordon said at the time. Wyoming’s system “does not need to be fixed,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must now act, the suit says.
“The ESA’s substantive protections cannot safeguard a species facing extinction until the species is formally listed as endangered or threatened,” the suit states. “Therefore, it is critical that FWS meticulously follow the ESA’s listing procedures and deadlines so that species are protected in a timely manner and early enough to stem and reverse their trend toward extinction.”
Instead of meeting its obligation, federal authorities “have regularly ignored these statutory procedures and missed statutory listing deadlines,” the suit states.
The USFWS transplanted wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and the population expanded to occupy parts of northwest Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The agency removed ESA protections from regional wolves in 2011 and 2012. But a court blocked the action in Wyoming until an appeal in 2017 handed control and hunting authority back to the state.
Wyoming set a limit of 47 wolves in its 2021 hunting season, which did not account for wolves killed in the predator zone where wolves could be killed by any means, all year long. Hunters killed 30 wolves in the regulated area that season.
In 2021 wolves in Wyoming killed 50 cattle, 53 sheep, five livestock-guarding dogs, and one horse, Wyoming Game and Fish reported.
The suit states that a member of the Center for Biological Diversity — the group’s Government Affairs Director Brett Hartl — is harmed by the FWS inaction. That’s because “fewer wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains makes viewing and photographing wolves much more difficult,” the suit states.