Friday, January 8, 2010

Wolf Death Toll Rises as We Await a Court Ruling

Photo of first wolf killed in 2009 Idaho wolf hunt,
released by Idaho Fish & Game Department

The federal government has made several attempts in recent years to weaken or entirely eliminate federal protections for wolves. Only weeks after conservationists had successfully restored Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies through a court order in July 2008, the Bush Administration, just before leaving office, announced a “new” de-listing rule, based on virtually all the same flawed science as the previous rule, to once again deprive wolves of protection under the ESA. Sadly, one of the Obama Administration’s earliest disappointments to the conservation community was its decision to uphold this de-listing rule.

The effect of the de-listing rule hands wolf management over to states that have literally been chomping at the bit to open wolf hunting seasons. And starting this past fall Idaho and Montana did just that—setting hunting quotas at 220 and 75 wolves respectively. Idahoans eager to kill wolves have now come close to meeting that quota, with over 140 wolves already killed, paying a mere $11.50 a pop for the chance to shoot one of these animals. When these hunting quotas are combined with the hundreds of wolves killed annually by the states to protect livestock, as well as poaching, other human-induced mortality and natural mortality, the current Northern Rockies wolf population will be significantly reduced.

HCPC joined the conservation coalition, represented by Earthjustice, in once again filing suit to reinstate ESA protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies. We decided to participate in this lawsuit because the de-listing rule is based on flawed and outdated science, diminishes the opportunity for wolves to disperse into Oregon and re-colonize their native habitat, and threatens the overall long-term viability of this regional wolf population.

As our lawsuit states, the decision to de-list a species from the federal Endangered Species Act should be based on whether the best available science supports a determination that the current population is large enough to withstand extinction threats and, if so, whether the respective states have adequate management plans to ensure the population remains sufficiently large. Instead of looking to the best scientific information currently available, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) primarily relied on its outdated 300-wolf recovery standard from over 20 years ago. There is an abundance of current science, including the FWS’s own re-examinations of this antiquated recovery standard, which demonstrates that a viable wolf population—one that can persist over the long-term—requires much more than 300 wolves.

Following this scientifically unsupported recovery standard, Idaho and Montana have developed inadequate state management plans that only commit to protecting a combined 300 wolves. This means the vast majority of the remaining current population (now estimated to be around 1,350 wolves) can be legally killed—rendering the conservation benefits derived from federal ESA protections and recovery efforts over the past three decades essentially meaningless.

The federal judge in our lawsuit has already indicated that we are likely to succeed on the merits of our case. However, until we succeed in court the wolves of the Northern Rockies will continue falling victim to state sanctioned bullets—that is unless the Obama administration decides to uphold its pledge to “restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act,” withdraws the rule that undermines years of knowledge gained from the field of conservation biology, and reinstates federal protections for this wolf population until the day they are truly no longer warranted.

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