So far, wolf reintroduction survives legal challenge

  Wolves arrived in central Idaho and Yellowstone last week after evading enemies in courtrooms and legislatures around the region. The frenzy of last-minute legal maneuvering preceding their return has fragmented opinion on both sides of the issue and bewildered onlookers.


Five months ago, to block the wolves' return, the American Farm Bureau and the Mountain States Legal Foundation announced they would seek an injunction in federal court. Federal officials agreed to delay the scheduled November release until a hearing could be held in late December.


When the hearing was held Dec. 21 in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, Wyo., ranchers who remembered the days when wolves still roamed the area told Judge William Downes they feared the predators would decimate their herds. Environmentalists countered that nearly 1,700 wolves live among Minnesota's dairy farms with minimal losses, and they noted that the group Defenders of Wildlife had established a $100,000 fund to pay ranchers for any livestock that is lost to the wolves.


On Jan. 3 Judge Downes decided that "expressions of fear and trepidation, however genuine, can not be accepted as proof of immediate and irreparable harm." He denied the injunction. His decision was upheld by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals after it issued a brief stay to consider the appeal. However, attorneys say their lawsuit pressing for removal of the wolves will continue.


"The issue is not wolves," Karen Henry, president of the Wyoming Farm Bureau, told the Associated Press. "The issue is control of the land. This is part of a bigger agenda from the Interior Department to control the West."


Wolf restoration is also being challenged in state legislatures. Wyoming lawmakers are considering a bill that would place a $500 bounty on every wolf found outside of a national park and provide legal defense for any wolf killer charged with violating the Endangered Species Act. Legislatures in Idaho and Montana are also considering bills opposing the restoration program.


Environmentalists heralded the wolves' return to the West as a turning point for America's relationship with wilderness. But while groups supported restoration in Yellowstone, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed suit in federal court on behalf of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and three other groups seeking to change the terms of the wolves' restoration to central Idaho.


Because wolves are already recolonizing the state on their own, they are protected as an "endangered" species, the groups said. Under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan, all wolves in the area have been downgraded to an "experimental nonessential" species. That allows ranchers to harass or kill wolves that prey upon livestock and does little to protect wolf habitat.


"In its rush to bring experimental nonessential wolves into Idaho, the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) has failed completely to protect Idaho's existing endangered wolves," said Brian Peck, National Audubon Society wildlife specialist. "The final wolf reintroduction proposal for Idaho is more protective of extractive industries than wolves."


Long-time backers of the Yellowstone reintroduction plan include the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Wolf Fund, a group that has been promoting the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone for nine years.


Renee Askins, the founder of the group, supports experimental nonessential status for Yellowstone wolves because she believes a flexible management plan will promote good will. "Laws don't protect wolves," she says. "People protect wolves."


* Anders Halverson, HCN intern