Advocates’ coalition says action unwarranted
A coalition of Western wolf advocates has filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to strip gray wolves of federal protections in the lower 48 states, asserting the action violates the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The lawsuit says the decision last fall by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to remove wolves from the endangered species list “is premature, conflicts with the Service’s responsibility to take a precautionary approach to wildlife management in accordance with the mandates and intent of the ESA, and blatantly contravenes prior court orders and rulings on the matter.”
It says that FWS relied on the premise that because wolves are recovered in one region — the Great Lakes — that is “sufficient to delist a species formerly distributed across the entire continent … despite the fact that gray wolves have yet to be restored to approximately 85 percent of the species’ historic range –including in ecologically viable populations in the Pacific Northwest.”
Wolves are listed as endangered under state laws in Washington and California, and wolves only occupy a small portion of available, suitable habitat in Oregon. Likewise, wolves have only just begun to recolonize their historical habitat on public lands in much of the West, including in Colorado and the southern Rockies, according to a press release from Cascadia Wildlands, one of the groups participating in the legal challenge.
In Washington, wolves in the western two-thirds of the state have had federal protection under the ESA. In 2011, wolves in the eastern third of Washington, roughly east of Highway 97, were deemed sufficiently recovered and removed from federal protection.
The Methow Valley, which has three known wolf packs that occupy territory in and around the valley, is within the area where wolves were federally protected until last year’s decision by the Trump administration to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list.
“Wolves are a keystone species whose presence on landscapes regulates animal populations and improves ecosystem health — something the Service has acknowledged for at least 44 years,” said Kelly Nokes, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs.
The most recent data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and state wildlife agencies show an estimated 4,400 wolves inhabit the western Great Lakes states, but only 108 wolves in Washington state (with only 20 outside of eastern Washington), according to Cascadia Wildlands.
Wildlife agencies have counted 158 wolves in Oregon (with only 16 outside of northeastern Oregon), and only 15 in California. Nevada, Utah, and Colorado have had a few wolf sightings over the past three years, but wolves remain functionally absent from their historical habitat in those states, Cascadia Wildlands said.
“Allowing people to kill wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana has already stunted recovery in those states. Applying this same death sentence to wolves throughout the contiguous U.S. would nationalize these negative effects, with potentially catastrophic ripple effects on ecosystems where wolves have yet to fully recover,” Nokes said.
Eighty-five percent of wolves killed in Washington have been in the Kettle River Range in the northeast part of the state, where the gray wolf was delisted from the ESA, although it remained on Washington state’s endangered list, said Timothy Coleman, director of Kettle Range Conservation Group and a former member of Washington’s Wolf Advisory Group.
Most of the wolves have been killed under the authority of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in response to predations on livestock. “Had (gray wolves) remained Endangered Species Act-listed, entire wolf families would not have been repeatedly killed in northeast Washington. Regionally, this has meant wolves are not dispersing to Mount Rainier and Olympia National Park, or other public lands in the Pacific Northwest,” Coleman said.
“We have seen what happens when ‘management’ of wolves is returned to hostile state wildlife agencies disinterested in maintaining robust, stable and genetically diverse wolf populations,” said Lindsay Larris, Wildlife Program director at WildEarth Guardians.
“Idaho, which allows an individual to kill up to 30 wolves annually, saw the slaughter of nearly 600 wolves and wolf pups in a recent 12-month period and now other states are gearing up to allow wolf hunting and trapping this fall,” Larris said.
“With only a handful of wolves in California, western Oregon and western Washington, wolf recovery is still precarious on the west coast,” said John Mellgren, Western Environmental Law Center general counsel. “A rush to delist the species across the entire country runs counter to the Service’s own peer review, and tells West Coast states that wolf recovery in their part of the country does not matter. We look forward to presenting the science to a federal court.”
The Methow Valley is home to the longest existing wolf pack in Washington – the Lookout Pack – which was discovered in 2008 and was the first known resident pack in Washington since wolves were extirpated throughout the state by the early 1900s.
Gray wolves are protected under state law as an endangered species throughout Washington. Under the state’s Wolf Management and Conservation Plan, protections can be lifted when wolves are considered to be recovered, which is determined by population, distribution and reproduction.
The lawsuit challenging the wolf delisting was filed on Jan. 14 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The coalition of western wildlife advocates launching the legal challenge includes WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), The Lands Council, Wildlands Network, Klamath Forest Alliance, and Kettle Range Conservation Group. A separate lawsuit is planned by Earthjustice representing national wildlife groups.