A Wolfpack of None: The Latest Gray Wolf Ruling Provides Environmental Groups with a Tacit Victory
By Steve Goldstein, Staff Contributor
On September 23, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted partial summary judgment to environmental group plaintiffs challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) September 2012 decision to remove the Wyoming Gray Wolf from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection.[i] The FWS decision was based largely on the inadequacy of the state’s regulatory system to ensure a healthy population level. But while Wyoming was statutorily required to maintain a gray wolf population of 10 breeding pairs and 100 individuals, it provided no concrete system for buffering those numbers. The court rejected this inadequate system and the agency’s reliance on non-binding assurances as arbitrary and capricious. While this ruling delivers a short term victory for the wolves and wildlife advocates, it far from resolves the controversial delisting process for this species.
FWS’s approval of Wyoming’s 2012 wolf regulations was held arbitrary and capricious due to the plan’s lack of an enforceable buffer to protect a minimum population level and failure to authorize responsive management of lethal take permits if even the minimum population level is threatened.[ii] Judge Berman Jackson found that FWS expressly relied on an understanding that Wyoming maintains more than the 10/100 minimum in announcing the 2012 rule.[iii] That may have been a decision worthy of deference had it been reiterated by the state in a binding guarantee. However, Wyoming went no further than indicating voluntary, non-binding compliance with this understanding. Judge Berman Jackson agreed with the plaintiffs that such reliance by FWS was arbitrary and capricious as a matter of law.[iv] Voluntary actions should be considered only so far as legally enforceable mechanisms guarantee the required level of protection in the first place.
But the procedural requirements mandated by the court are far from a guarantee that Wyoming’s future approach will have any substantive improvements.
“Whereas Montana and Idaho had concrete commitments to preserve 15 breeding pairs and set fixed trophy game areas, Wyoming’s regulatory structure included neither.”
In 2009, the gray wolf was delisted in Idaho and Montana. Both states have allowed aggressive hunting. During the first wolf season, 72 individuals were killed in Montana and 188 in Idaho.[v] In 2013, both states allowed trapping for the first time, and the numbers of wolves taken jumped dramatically. Montana issued 18,642 wolf hunting and 1,500 trapping licenses for the 2012-2013 season; 225 wolves were taken.[vi] Idaho reduced its population by 379 individuals in the 2011-2012[vii] season and by another 302 in 2013-2014.[viii] These takes represent a significant portion of the approximately 1,770 individuals estimated to occupy the Northern Rocky Mountain region.[ix]
Wyoming’s bid for state control in 2009 was rejected. Whereas Montana and Idaho had concrete commitments to preserve 15 breeding pairs and set fixed trophy game areas, Wyoming’s regulatory structure included neither. In response to this lack of clarity, FWS suggested that the entire state of Wyoming be designated a “trophy game area” in order to achieve sufficient regulatory control.[x] This recommendation was dismissed by the U.S. District Court of the District of Wyoming and remanded back to FWS for further consideration of Wyoming’s regulatory framework.[xi] In 2012, despite several concerns raised during independent peer-review, FWS delisted the Gray Wolf in Wyoming under the regulatory structure discussed above. In the hunting season that followed, 74 wolves were taken.[xii]
“Wyoming’s goal is a simple one: if the feds want the wolf back, they can have it.”
As approved in 2012, the state’s regulatory structure provided that the state would manage for “at least ten (10) breeding pairs of gray wolves and a total of at least one hundred (100) individual gray wolves.”[xiii] It would do so by establishing a fixed “trophy game area” around federally controlled Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation.[xiv] The sufficiency of these guarantees was at the heart of Judge Berman Jackson’s decision.
Wyoming’s goal is a simple one: if the feds want the wolf back, they can have it. While the Gray Wolf will remain protected on federal lands, its population will be limited by hunting and trapping in the rest of the state. Further expansion of its range will be constantly frustrated by authorized hunts and shoot-on-site vermin classification. But the fate of the Gray Wolf in Wyoming is far from settled. Challenges to the substantive adequacy of the states’ regulatory structures will likely continue. If the population gets pushed too far, a howl will go out and environmentalists will take to the courts to ensure the continued existence of this icon of the West.
[i] Defenders of Wildlife v. Jewell, No. 12-1833(ABJ) (D.D.C. filed Sept. 23, 2014). Judge Berman Jackson granted Summary Judgment on the procedural question of the sufficiency of Wyoming’s regulatory mechanisms, but rejected Plaintiff’s arguments on the scientific determinations of sufficient genetic connectivity and the determination that the wolf was not threatened over “a significant portion of its range.” Id.
[ii] Defenders of Wildlife v. Jewell, at *
[iii] Id. at *21 (citing 77 Fed. Reg. at 55,556).
[iv] Id. at *23-27.
[v] “Montana and Idaho Adapting Wolf Harvest Strategies,” Wildlife Management Institute, http://www.wildlifemanagementinstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=568:montana-and-idaho-adapting-wolf-harvest-strategies&catid=34:ONB%20Articles&Itemid=54 (last visited Oct. 16, 2014).
[vi] “FWP Reports Wolf Hunting and Trapping Season Reports,” Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, http://fwp.mt.gov/news/newsReleases/headlines/nr_4069.html (Mar. 4, 2013).
[vii] Idaho Department of Fish and Game, “Wolf Management Update-January 2013” (available at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/docs/wolves/summary2013.pdf).
[viii] Idaho Department of Fish and Game, “2013-2014 Hunting/Trapping Season” (available at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/hunt/?getPage=121).
[ix] Defenders of Wildlife v. Jewell at *4.
[x] Id. at *8.
[xi] Wyoming v. U.S. Dep’t. of Interior, 2010 WL 4814950, Nos. 09-CV-118J, 09-CV-138J, at *45 (D. Wyo. Nov. 18, 2010).
[xii] Jeff Black, “Protected no longer, more than 550 gray wolves killed this season by hunters and trappers,” NBC News, Mar. 6, 2013, http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/06/17213786-protected-no-longer-more-than-550-gray-wolves-killed-this-season-by-hunters-and-trappers?lite.
[xiii] Wyo. Stat. Ann §23-1-304(a).