« Return to this article

Know the West

Yellowstone wolves are here to stay


Almost 300 wolves that are part of a transplant program in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho can remain in their new homes, thanks to a new ruling.

On Jan. 13, a three-judge panel from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver reversed a two-year-old decision by Federal Judge William Downes that a federal wolf reintroduction program was illegal. Downes ordered all the wolves removed, but stayed his order pending appeal. Meanwhile, federal biologists and wolf advocates held their breath.

Downes' decision came in response to two lawsuits, one from federal and state farm bureaus, the other from Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and several other environmental groups (HCN, 1/19/98). The crux of both lawsuits was language in section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act, language that allows agencies to reintroduce endangered species as "nonessential experimental." That designation affords more flexible management and, in this case, allows ranchers to shoot wolves caught killing livestock.

Ranchers and environmentalists both argued that wolves already lived in northern Idaho and allowing ranchers to shoot "experimental" wolves could endanger wild ones. But the plaintiffs wanted radically different results: The Farm Bureau wanted the wolves rounded up; the environmentalists wanted transplanted wolves to be protected as fully "endangered" (HCN, 4/13/98).

In their January ruling, the justices said such a "restrictive interpretation" of the Endangered Species Act could "handicap" the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ability to recover species such as wolves. The decision was hailed by some environmentalists and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who called it "a ringing endorsement to our wolf reintroduction program." But critics worry that the court's approval of the experimental designation does not bode well for the future of wolves in the West.

The experiment goes on

The 10th Circuit Court ruling "says we have a flexible tool that works, and works well," says Tom France, a senior attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, which intervened in the case on behalf of the Fish and Wildlife Service. France has cited the experimental status to garner support for grizzly bear reintroduction in western Montana and northern Idaho (HCN, 11/9/98). "Here we can customize the regulatory program under the act to the needs of the species and the needs of the people," he says.

Jake Cummins with the Montana Farm Bureau is also pleased. Before the ruling, ranchers were hesitant to shoot wolves that were attacking livestock, for fear of killing a naturally occurring wolf, he says. "If you made a mistake and shot one that was naturally occurring, you were subject to the full penalty under the Endangered Species Act, which is a year in jail and a $100,000 fine," he says. "This ruling says all of the animals are under the experimental status."

Doug Honnold, the Earthjustice attorney who filed the original lawsuit, is relieved that wolves can stay, but says he was disappointed the court did not find fault with how the nonessential experimental status was applied. "We think it is wrong that naturally occurring wolves within a recovery zone are considered nonessential experimental," he says.

Honnold says he won't appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. "The 10th Circuit ruling is the end of the day," he says. Still, he wants the Fish and Wildlife Service to change its rules for experimental animals. "We are going to continue to look at ways to persuade them to do more, not less, to protect" the wolves, he says.

Today, there are eight wolf packs in Yellowstone, with 116 wolves. In Idaho, 11 wolf packs include more than 150 animals.

The same day the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals released its decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued wolf permits to two ranchers in Dubois, Wyo. One went to Diamond G Ranch manager Jon Robinett and the other to Absaroka Ranch owner Budd Betts. Valid through March 1, the permits allow the ranchers to kill one wolf each on their private land, where wolves killed livestock and dogs last year.

Mexican wolves in trouble

Meanwhile, in the Southwest, officials have begun pulling the largest wolf pack in the Southwest off the Gila National Forest in New Mexico after biologists confirmed they had killed livestock. The eight members of the Gavilan pack, some of which were transplanted to Arizona's Apache National Forest from Mexico in 1998 as part of a reintroduction program, are all listed as nonessential experimental (HCN, 2/16/98).

Once the Gavilan pack is rounded up, only 12 Mexican wolves will remain in the wild. The alpha male will spend the rest of his life in captivity, although other members of the pack might be released again, according to Wendy Brown, the acting head of the Mexican wolf recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency could release the Gavilan wolves in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, where wolf advocates say they would be less apt to run into trouble with livestock. Resistance on many levels makes this unlikely. State game officials have opposed wolf recovery in New Mexico from the beginning, and New Mexico Republican Rep. Joe Skeen says he wants to delay any releases in the state until federal biologists do more studies. Most recently, on Jan. 13, the Grant County Commission passed a resolution banning wolf reintroduction.

The Gavilan pack would have made its way to the Gila on its own, according to Michael Robinson, New Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity. But on the way, wolves ran into ranchers, he says, and thanks to their experimental status, they will be removed.

"These wolves migrated into the Gila, found a carcass that had been left out to rot, and a week after that started killing cattle," he says. "Now they may never be released into the wild again. The provisions of the nonessential experimental are being used to the detriment of these wolves."

Rachel Odell writes for the Jackson Hole News in Wyoming.

You can contact ...

* Tom France with the National Wildlife Federation, 406/721-6705;

* Doug Honnold with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, 406/586-9699;

* Jake Cummins, Montana Farm Bureau, 406/587-3153;