The agreement settles ongoing acrimonious litigation over the August 2010 decision of the U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Montana to reinstate Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains.
Wolves were officially delisted in Montana on May 9, 2009, but the federal delisting decision was challenged in court by the conservation groups. The states of Montana and Idaho an hunting groups intervened in the lawsuit to support federal delisting efforts.
Conservation groups argued that state agencies have been too aggressive in killing wolves and that wolf populations are not yet back to sustainable levels.
The states argued that they need hunting seasons to control the growth of burgeoning wolf populations.
A pair of wolves in Montana (Photo by Steve Jurvetson)
"For too long, management of wolves in this country has been caught up in controversy and litigation instead of rooted in science where it belongs," said Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Hayes today. "This proposed settlement provides a path forward to recognize the successful recovery of the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains and to return its management to states and tribes."
"I am pleased that the negotiations resulted in this important agreement," said Rowan Gould, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "The proposed settlement has the potential to return management of wolves in Montana and Idaho to the states and tribes and will also enable the Fish and Wildlife Service to use our limited resources to address other species in need of recovery actions."
The settlement was filed for approval with the U.S. District Court in Montana.
The parties are requesting that the court allow the 2009 delisting to be reinstated in Montana and Idaho on an interim basis, in accordance with approved state management plans, until a full delisting can be completed for the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.
The parties are agreeing that they allow these steps to move forward, up to and including a potential delisting of Rocky Mountain wolves, without resorting to further litigation.
Under the settlement, the Service has agreed to address the delisting of wolves in the region in the future as a distinct population segment, rather than on a state-by-state basis.
The settlement also requires the Interior Department to withdraw a controversial policy memo used to justify not protecting imperiled species throughout their entire range.
Separate negotiations are ongoing between the Service and the state of Wyoming in an effort to reach agreement on a management plan for wolves in that state. If a mutually acceptable management plan for wolves in Wyoming can be developed, then the Service will be able to proceed with delisting proceedings addressing wolves throughout the northern Rocky Mountains.
The 10 conservation groups that have agreed to the settlement are Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club and Wildlands Network.
"We hope today's agreement will mark the beginning of a new era of wolf conservation in the Northern Rockies, as well as confirm the success of the Endangered Species Act and this country's boldest wildlife reintroduction effort in history," the groups said in a joint statement.
"In return for allowing the states of Montana and Idaho to manage wolves according to approved conservation plans, the Department of the Interior agrees to conduct rigorous scientific monitoring of wolf populations across the region and an independent scientific review by an expert advisory board after three years," the groups said. "This is a critical safety net to ensure a sustainable wolf population in the region over the long run."
At least 566 wolves inhabit Montana according to the 2010 annual wolf conservation and management report released March 11 by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The state's minimum wolf population increased about eight percent in 2010, compared to a four percent increase last year and an 18 percent increase in 2008.
"I'm certain we could have successfully reduced the wolf population in 2010 if we could have proceeded with our planned, science-based hunting season," said FWP Director Joe Maurier, announcing the new population figures.
"When you look at our management success in 2009, we had a vigorous wolf population at the end of the year and we were still able to control its growth. It's clear that a management strategy that includes hunting can play an important role in managing wolves in Montana. It is a tool we need."
In 2010, wolf numbers in Idaho dropped slightly to 705, a drop that Maurier says may have been due to the state's decision to reel in monitoring efforts in central Idaho's rugged wilderness areas.
The 2010 count shows that 343 wolves inhabited Wyoming, up slightly from 2009.
The conservation groups say healthy populations of wolves are of value to the ecosystem. "Wolves are a keystone species that allow many other plants and animals - from beaver and trout, to willows and migratory birds - to thrive in a way that will fascinate and benefit Americans for generations to come. Wolves have a place on the landscape, and continued conflict doesn't benefit anyone."
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