A federal judge in Montana will hear arguments on June 15 in the latest round of a lawsuit to reverse the removal of Idaho’s wolf population from the federal endangered species list. If U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy sides with conservation and wildlife groups that want wolves back on the protected list, it could end plans for a second wolf hunt in Idaho.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) will send a deputy attorney general to the meeting to argue on behalf of the state’s wolf management program, which includes the sanctioned wolf hunt. IDFG Director Cal Groen said Idaho’s first wolf hunt, which ended March 31, was a success because it was well-managed by the department and halted the growth of Idaho’s wolf population.
Wolf management and hunting have been contentious issues among Idaho lawmakers. The state Legislature approved a plan to shield all hunting and fishing licenses from public records requests due to harassment of wolf hunters. Senate Environment and Resources Committee Chair Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said that putting wolves back on the endangered species list could limit livestock producers’ ability to protect their animals from wolves.
Lawyers with Earthjustice, the non-profit legal firm representing a dozen conservation groups trying to give wolves living in the northern Rockies stronger federal protection, say there’s no scientific reason why Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming should manage their wolf populations separately. “We’re hoping through the lawsuit to put the wolf back on the list of endangered species to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of wolves to have long-term persistence and recovery,” said Doug Honnold, the managing attorney for EarthJustice in Bozeman, Mont.
Honnold estimated that there are about 2,000 wolves currently in the three northern Rockies states, which he said is the minimum needed to maintain a healthy population and prevent health problems caused by in-breeding over multiple generations of wolves. Current federal regulations only require the three states to have 300 wolves, though IDFG’s current management plan has a minimum of 500 wolves. “The recovery goal for that the Fish and Wildlife Service has set for the number of wolves in the northern Rockies is legally and scientifically invalid,” Honnold said. “That’s another weighty issue that’s raised in the litigation.”
Molloy rejected a request from Earthjustice and other groups last year to block the wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana, though part of that ruling could help conservation groups this year. “(Molloy) entered a finding that it was likely that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had violated the law in separating out Idaho and Montana from the three-state population,” Honnold said. If Molloy reaffirms that position, wolves could go back on the endangered list. “Our role at this point is to persuade him that his preliminary assessment was correct and to try to stay with it. The federal government and the state interveners will try to persuade him that he was wrong last time.”
Molloy isn’t expected to issue a ruling immediately after the June 15 hearing. “I would guess that he’ll issue something in advance of the recommencement of the fall hunts, but that’s just a guess,” Honnold said. IDFG commissioners are scheduled to set new quotas for next fall’s wolf hunt during an August meeting. Hunters killed 188 wolves from September to March, which was less than the 220 statewide quota, though half of hunting zones closed after reaching their harvest limit.