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Know the West

Judge says wolf reintroduction was illegal

  Several years ago, the Department of Interior sold its program to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone and central Idaho by assuring ranchers they could shoot wolves that got into their herds without fear of penalty under the Endangered Species Act. Now, with introduced wolves thriving in both areas, a federal judge has ruled that the agency made an illegal promise.

On Dec. 12, Judge William Downes found that the less-protective "experimental and non-essential" status given the wolves undercut protections for other wolves that might naturally migrate into those areas. "The introduction of an experimental population cannot operate as a defacto delisting of naturally occurring wolves," he wrote. Downes ordered Interior officials to remove the reintroduced wolves, but not until they get a decision on an expected appeal from the federal government.

The ruling, which stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming farm bureaus and a separate suit by several environmental groups, is "very discouraging, given the success of this program," says Tom France, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation. "I think this will be reversed, if not by the courts, then by Congress." Since the reintroduction program began in 1995, the Yellowstone wolf population has grown from 41 to about 90. The central Idaho group has grown from 25 to approximately 73.

Ironically, other environmentalists viewed the order as misguided, but some of the judge's reasoning correct. "Using the experimental designation where there are naturally occurring wolves was wrong from the get go," says Doug Honnold, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. Honnold says he is encouraging his clients, including the National Audubon Society, to appeal the decision in hopes of giving introduced wolves in Idaho the full protection of the law.

*Paul Larmer