A couple of weeks ago, the life expectancy of a gray wolf in Wyoming looked pretty grim. Wolves could be killed at any time by anyone within a "predator zone" extending over 80 percent of the state. In the smaller "game zone" wolves could be hunted right up to the border of Yellowstone National Park, threatening even the wolves of Yellowstone, should they step outside park boundaries. That all changed this past Tuesday, when a judge reaffirmed her earlier decision from a week before which reinstated federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves in Wyoming.
Wyoming developed its overly aggressive "predator zone" for wolves and opened a hunting season in 2012 shortly after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) delisted wolves statewide. Conservation groups immediately challenged the Service's decision asserting that Wyoming's wolf management policies were inadequate to ensure the continued recovery of wolves in the region. And last week we were vindicated when a federal judge invalidated the delisting of wolves in Wyoming and placed them back under the protections of the ESA.
If you think this story sounds familiar, that's because you've heard it numerous times before. This is now the fifth time the Service has attempted to weaken or remove federal protections for a population of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. And it's the fifth time the agency has lost in federal court, wasting taxpayer dollars and valuable time and energy that could have been spent on plans that would actually help wolf recovery.
Sadly, none of this needed to happen.
When it comes to wolves, the Service has disappointingly been focused on the wrong priorities. Instead of working to develop a thoughtful west-wide strategy that would ensure the continued recovery of the species into states like Utah, Colorado and California, the Service repeatedly has rushed to judgment to wash its hands of wolves altogether. They have prematurely turned management over to western states that are seemingly too eager to begin driving their wolf populations back to the bottom.
Just like the movie Groundhog Day, time and time again, thankfully wolves have been returned to federal protection by the courts. And time and again the Service has cut corners under the ESA and fallen short. The latest court ruling on Wyoming wolves is no different. Wyoming's wolf management plan was found to be inadequate. Now Wyoming must go back and revise its management plan and the Service must provide an opportunity for additional public comment. This time, we hope the state comes up with a plan that actually assures continued wolf recovery. We stand willing to help them in any productive way.
While we may have won the battle this week, the war on wolves is far from over. Another blow to wolves is expected later this year when the Service announces a final decision on its proposal to delist wolves nationwide. Today wolves have only stabilized on the path to recovery in one-third of their suitable habitat in the west -- remaining absent from huge swaths of our public lands that provide excellent habitat for wolves. In some states like Idaho where wolves were statutorily delisted, elected officials are pulling out all the stops to drive their wolf numbers to the bottom. And if that's not enough of a reason to hold off on a nationwide delisting proposal, the agency's own peer review panel unanimously concluded that the federal wolf delisting proposal was not based upon the best available science. Now is not the time to once again rush out with another hurried and flawed delisting of wolves.
While we are hopeful the Service has learned something after all of their past "missteps" that have seriously undermined wolf recovery in the Lower 48, we are prepared if they move forward to attempt, once again, to wash its hands from their responsibility for wolf recovery - likely setting up yet again another trip back to federal court.
After five straight losses and no wins, most professional sports teams would reconsider and readjust their clearly failing game strategies. Only time will tell whether the Service's judicial scorecard will eventually expand to 0 - 6 for the delisting of wolves. I sincerely hope not.