Wolves return to federal court on June 15 as regional wildlife officials work out the details for this fall's hunt.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has asked for oral arguments in the lawsuit over removing wolves from Endangered Species Act protection. Last September, Molloy warned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attorneys they were likely to lose the delisting argument, but he also refused to block the 2009 wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho.
Federal and state wildlife managers claimed that wolf populations in the northern Rocky Mountains are far above the goal of 300 animals and 30 breeding pairs initially assumed necessary for a recovered species. Surveys at the end of 2009 found almost 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
A coalition of 13 environmental and conservation groups countered that FWS erred when it delisted the wolf in Montana and Idaho but not Wyoming. They argued wolves should be managed as a regional population, and it was illegal to divide their protection along state lines. Furthermore, they argued a recovered population number should be between 2,000 and 5,000 animals.
Wyoming officials are following a separate federal lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Allen Johnson in Cheyenne. Federal officials rejected the state's management plan because it treated the wolf as a shoot-on-site nuisance in all but a few areas. Johnson held oral arguments Jan. 29 and is now working on a decision.
"There's really no reading of the tea leaves in this scheduling," EarthJustice attorney Jenny Harbine said of the Missoula court hearing. EarthJustice is the legal firm representing the environmental groups.
"Our experience with Judge Molloy is he will have read the briefs closely, and will have questions for each of the parties," Harbine said. "He's unlikely to rule on that day. I expect he will take the case under advisement and prepare a thoughtful opinion."
Meanwhile, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff are reviewing the results of last fall's hunt and planning for the coming big-game season.
"Montana is looking at higher quotas than 2009," FWP wolf program coordinator Carolyn Sime said. "We're looking to distribute that harvest in more specific way, with higher and lower levels of harvest in different areas."
Sime said the new season might try to emphasize more hunting in areas close to livestock and away from the remote backcountry. She said Montana's wolf management policy assumes hunters will play a major role in regulating wolf populations, in a similar way to how they affect mountain lion and black bear numbers.
The state has a double objective in its wolf policy. One is to reduce the threat to sheep and cattle producers who lose livestock to wolves. The other is to keep Montana's wild game populations at healthy and huntable levels.
Wolf policy critics have charged failure on both counts, with livestock depredation climbing and elk and deer numbers falling in many parts of Montana. But wolves have also been linked to local economic boosts as tourists come to places like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks to see the predators. Biologists throughout the region are trying to discover the full range of effects wolves are having on the environment, from changes in elk herd behavior to increases in songbird habitat.
Montana's latest population survey found 524 wolves in 101 packs at the end of 2009. That was after the state allowed hunters to shoot up to 75 wolves, with subquotas set for three different regions. The season closed early with 72 wolves killed. State and federal agents killed another 145 wolves in Montana in livestock-related control efforts.
Wyoming's wolf population stood at 320 at the end of 2009, with 224 of those outside Yellowstone National Park. They were grouped in 37 packs.
Idaho hunters killed 135 wolves between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2009. They added another 46 in the extended season of Jan. 1 through March 31, for a total 188. And seven wolves died either by poaching, improper trapping or other human causes. The state's quota was 220 wolves for the first hunt. The hunting kills do not count wolves shot by state or federal agents in livestock depredation cases.
The official wolf population for Dec. 31, 2009, in Idaho was 835 animals in 94 packs. In 2008, the tally was 856 wolves in 88 packs.
Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Ed Mitchell said the state would like to see the wolf population stabilize around 518 animals as a long-term goal. Its hunting commission is expected to see a draft 2010 hunting plan around Aug. 1, with a decision rendered by the middle of the month.
Idaho sold 26,428 tags for last year's hunt and has already sold 4,972 for the coming 2010 season. Montana hunters bought about 15,000 tags for the 2009 season.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners should have a new proposal for the 2010 hunting season wolf quota on May 13. They will take public comment on the draft plan through June before making a decision in July.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.