Plaintiffs applaud judge’s conclusions

By Ann McCreary

A federal judge has barred the federal Wildlife Services program from participating in lethal removal of gray wolves in Washington, and rejected an Environmental Assessment (EA) prepared by the agency.

In response to a challenge brought by a coalition of conservation organizations, U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan said last week that Wildlife Services should have prepared a more in-depth environmental analysis of the effects of its proposed wolf management activities.

The lawsuit filed by five conservation organization earlier this year claimed that Wildlife Services, a federal program involved in wildlife management and conflict resolution, violated federal law by not preparing an adequately detailed environmental analysis of the effects of killing wolves that attack livestock in Washington.

An agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services has worked under contract with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) on lethal and non-lethal approaches to wolf-livestock conflict.

In 2014, Wildlife Services killed one wolf in the Huckleberry pack after state wildlife officials linked the pack to sheep kills. In 2012, Wildlife Services provided technical information to WDFW when the department killed seven wolves from the Wedge Pack following attacks on cattle.

In his ruling, Bryan said that “although Wildlife Services may have taken a hard look at the effects of lethal removal on non-target species, Wildlife Services did not take a hard look at the ecological effects of lethal removal or its effect on gray wolf populations” in its environmental analysis.

Bryan said the agreements on wolf management activities between WDFW and Wildlife Services left “the potential for substantial mismanagement of the Washington gray wolf population in the hands of Wildlife Services without the benefit of an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement).”

He said Wildlife Services failed to meet federal environmental policy requirements by not preparing an EIS and not taking a hard look at significant issues.

“Wildlife Services repeatedly but erroneously falls back on the position that it need not do so because it only intends to act at WDFW’s direction,” Bryan wrote.

Arbitrary action

The EA describes Wildlife Services’ intent to be bound to the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, which “is subject to changes or additions by WDFW, giving the public scant recourse,” Bryan wrote.

“Wildlife Services acted arbitrarily and capriciously and contrary to law by not preparing an EIS,” Bryan said. “Although aspects of Wildlife Services’ consideration under the Environmental Assessment and FONSI (finding of no significant impact) were sufficiently thorough, Wildlife Services misjudged the scope of its responsibility by deferring to WDFW, rather than diligently considering issues that may arise under the potentially broad scope of involvement in the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.”

The judge ordered Wildlife Services to “not take any further wolf management actions in Washington” beyond the status quo that was in place prior to the Environmental Assessment and its finding of no significant impact.

The judge’s ruling was applauded by conservation groups that brought the case.

“The court made a wise and prudent decision that safeguards the legal right of citizens to know what their government is doing in their name,” said Timothy Coleman, executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group. “Wildlife Services cannot just grant itself authority to execute an endangered species absent the public interest or best available science.”

“We have been working for over a decade to hold Wildlife Services accountable for its blind, reckless lethal control programs,” said Nick Cady, legal director of Cascadia Wildlands. “This decision paves the way for meaningful analysis of the program’s impacts and hopefully a meaningful look at whether or not this wolf killing is worth it.”

“Wildlife Services has long asserted that it need not comply with our nation’s federal environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, but this decision rejects those arguments and requires Wildlife Services to comply with all federal laws, not just those it finds convenient to comply with,” said John Mellgren, an attorney with Western Environmental Law Center, which represented the environmental organizations in court.

WDFW’s involvement

Donny Martorello of WDFW said that although Wildlife Services is now barred by the ruling from participating in lethal removal of gray wolves in Washington, the agency may continue to work on non-lethal management as requested by WDFW.

“Those activities have included trapping and collaring wolves, investigating reports of wolf-livestock depredations, and implementing non-lethal measures,” Martorello said in an email to members of the state’s Wolf Advisory Group.

WDFW filed a brief in support of Wildlife Services and Martorello said the two agencies are now considering their legal options for responding to the ruling.

In his order, Bryan said, “The decision on how to proceed — whether to prepare and EIS, renegotiate a narrower cope of involvement with WDFW, or abandon assistance efforts entirely — rests with Wildlife Services.”

Because the case is ongoing, WDFW would not discuss further details, Martorello said.

Organizations that brought the case are Cascadia Wildlands, WildEarth Guardians, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Predator Defense, and the Lands Council.

Gray wolves are protected as an endangered species throughout Washington under state law, and in the western two-thirds of the state — which includes the Methow Valley — under federal law.

There were at least 68 wolves in 16 packs in Washington according to a 2014 wolf census by WDFW. Two wolf packs have been confirmed in the Methow Valley.