In the same ruling, Chief Judge Donald Molloy declined to order a preliminary injunction against wolf hunts this fall in Montana and Idaho sought by a consortium of conservation groups. For now, the hunts will go ahead.
The injunction was sought by 13 conservation groups that are suing the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The lawsuit challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision earlier this year to designate and delist the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf distinct population segment under the Endangered Species Act.
"Without showing irreparable harm, the Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden for issuing a preliminary injunction," ruled Judge Molloy. "Even so, the Plaintiffs are likely to be able to meet their burden to show the balance of equities tip in their favor. They would also likely prevail in showing an injunction is in the public interest."
"Today's ruling is a split decision," said attorney Doug Honnold of the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, who represents the conservation groups. "We are glad the court agreed with us that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act. We are deeply saddened by the fact that the court decided not to stop the Idaho and Montana wolf hunts this year."
The ruling comes after Idaho's wolf hunting season opened on September 1 in two of the state's 12 hunting units. Montana is set to begin its wolf hunt on September 15.
Northern Rockies gray wolf (Photo courtesy Sierra Club)
Idaho has authorized the killing of 220 wolves in the hunt - 25 percent of the last official Idaho wolf population estimate at the end of December 2008. Montana has authorized the take of 75 wolves in a wolf hunt - 15 percent of its last official wolf population estimate. Under current management plans, the two states can kill all but 150 wolves in each state.
"In the big picture, this is a win," said Louisa Willcox, wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiff groups. "We feel good about the judge's analysis of the merits of our case. The Department of Interior has clearly missed an opportunity to get this right. We need a national wolf recovery plan and this piecemeal effort just won't get us there."
Joining NRDC in the coalition are Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Network, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council. A separate lawsuit filed by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was consolidated by the court, which ruled on both legal actions together.
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said, "While we are disappointed that the court did not issue an injunction, we are encouraged that the court seems to agree with us that the Obama Department of the Interior's delisting the wolf was illegal and appears, as we have repeatedly said, to have reflected a political, rather than a science-based, decision."
The decision is the latest in a long legal battle over the future of wolves in the region. In June, the same groups challenged the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to remove protections for packs in Montana and Idaho.
Dan Kruse of Cascadia Wildlands said, "This decision highlights the illegality of the government's decision to remove federal protection for wolves. Even though the court declined to immediately stop the killings, the Obama administration should take this decision as an opportunity to seriously reconsider its support for such a flawed management plan."
The plaintiff groups argue that the wolf hunts threaten to cripple the regional wolf population by isolating wolves into disconnected subgroups incapable of genetic or ecological sustainability. They warn that the wolf hunts would allow the killing of the breeding alpha male and female wolves, disrupting wolf social groups and leaving pups more vulnerable.
"We are encouraged by the fact that Judge Molloy agrees that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when removing protections for wolves," said Sierra Club representative Melanie Stein. "However, we are disheartened that public hunting will be allowed to continue in Idaho and Montana this fall."
"Wolves are at the brink of recovery in the northern Rockies," said Stein, "and we believe a public hunt is premature and could negatively impact their chance to make a full recovery."
Wolves are still under federal protection in Wyoming because a federal court previously ruled that Wyoming's hostile wolf management scheme leaves wolves in "serious jeopardy."
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.