Wyoming Sues Interior Department For Rejecting Wolf Plan

CHEYENNE, Wyoming, April 26, 2004 (ENS) - Wyoming filed suit Thursday against the federal government for rejecting the state's wolf management plan. The lawsuit casts another shadow over a controversial plan by the Bush administration to remove federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for gray wolves in the western United States and give state governments the responsibility for managing and safeguarding the species.

In January federal officials with the Interior Department deemed Wyoming's plan inadequate because it fails to provide assurance of management controls to maintain wolf population levels above recovery goals.

The decision "ignored the weight of science," according to the lawsuit, which asserts that the U.S. Department of Interior exceeded its own authority in rejecting the plan.

Wyoming officials say they were reluctant to pursue litigation but felt it was the only avenue of action left open to them.

"I had frankly hoped it would not come to this," said Wyoming's Republican Governor Dave Freudenthal. "I had hoped that the Department of the Interior would abide by the Endangered Species Act and make its decisions according to science, but the department has amply demonstrated that is not the case."

Last month the administration accepted management plans from Idaho and Montana and granted them greater authority to manage gray wolf populations in their states. Wyoming is seeking a similar status.

The plan allows state officials in Idaho and Montana to kill wolves threatening elk and deer populations and gives ranchers and pet owners greater freedom to kill wolves that threaten their animals. wolfgrass

Gray wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in U.S history. (Photo by John and Karen Hollingsworth courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
Federal officials said the plans developed by Idaho and Montana are adequate to maintain the population of gray wolves above established recovery goals.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected Wyoming's plan because it objected to the state's desire to designate wolves in some areas as predators - a designation that allows the animals to be killed at any time and any place.

Officials recommended that Wyoming instead designate wolves as "trophy game" statewide, a move that would put some restrictions on when and where wolves could be killed.

In addition, the agency said the Wyoming plan does not provide adequate monitoring, does not commit to managing 15 wolf packs and fails to apply a consistent, biologically based definition of a pack.

Federal officials want the state to revise its definition of a pack to six wolves traveling together in winter.

But Wyoming officials allege that the decision was based on political considerations, fear of lawsuits by environmental organizations and speculation regarding future actions by Montana and Idaho to adopt plans similar to Wyoming's.

The state argues that Interior Department's rejection contradicts the Endangered Species Act, which requires the Secretary of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service Director to base delisting decisions "solely upon" the best science available.

Wyoming filed two documents in U.S. District Court - one is a suit under the federal Administrative Procedures Act and the second is a notice of intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act. State officials charge the federal government with acting "arbitrarily and capriciously" in rejecting the Wyoming plan and say the move violated the state's sovereignty rights. Freudenthal

Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal said the lawsuit is needed to ensure "Wyoming’s wolves are managed according to science, and not according to vague ideas about politics and legal risks." (Photo courtesy Governor's office)
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is not managing the gray wolf population, and Wyoming has been unlawfully denied the opportunity to do so itself," said Attorney General Pat Crank. "If nothing further happens, the severe impacts already being felt by Wyoming will grow, the wolf will not be delisted and we won't be able to balance their population with other wildlife and agricultural interests."

Federal officials expected the suit and say they are confident the court will rule in their favor - conservationists, who strongly oppose the overall Bush plan to delist wolves, will likely weigh in to help defend the federal government's position.

Conservation groups have sued to block the plan to delist wolves in federal courts in Oregon and Vermont.

They fear the Bush administration is caving in to anti-wolf interests and contend its policies will undermine one of the nation's greatest conservation success stories.

Proponents of less protection for wolves contend that the animals pose significant risk to livestock and are adversely affecting elk populations, which in turn is annoying elk hunters. Wyoming has some 85,000 elk, according to state estimates.

The gray wolf once roamed from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico, but only a few hundred remained in the Great Lakes region when the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.

One of the first species listed as endangered under the law, the gray wolf now numbers about 4,000 across less than five percent of its historic range. wolfpup

Recovery efforts have helped make the gray wolf a symbol for successful partnerships between the government and conservationists. (Photo by George Gentry courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
In April 2003 the Bush administration downgraded the status of the gray wolf throughout much of the lower 48 states from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act and announced its intent to move forward with delisting the species entirely.

Prior to the announcement, all gray wolves in the lower 48, except for those in Minnesota, had been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Minnesota population continues to be listed as threatened.

For delisting to progress in the West, the Fish and Wildlife Service must approve management plans by all three states - Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The agency estimates 761 gray wolves live in these three states.