Wildlife advocates agreed with the U.S. Department of Interior on Friday to take gray wolves off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho, potentially returning the carnivore to state management and public hunting.
If accepted by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, the settlement could short-circuit efforts in Congress to force the wolf back to state control.
But it also fractured the wolf supporters' legal coalition, with some groups charging they're giving up a victory they'd already won in court.
Friday's agreement would reinstate a 2009 federal decision, letting Montana and Idaho manage and hunt wolves while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a more complete wolf delisting plan for the whole Rocky Mountain region.
Wolf populations have soared to almost 1,700 in the area since experimental populations were introduced in Yellowstone National Park and the central Idaho wilderness in 1995.
A coalition of 14 environmental groups sued FWS in 2009 to keep wolves under federal protection, arguing the agency couldn't manage free-ranging wolves by state boundaries. They also claimed state management plans didn't allow enough wolves to keep the population healthy.
Molloy agreed with the environmental groups in August, saying it was illegal to put Montana's and Idaho's wolves under state control while keeping Wyoming's wolves under federal protection. The federal government challenged the ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but also started settlement talks with the plaintiffs.
Those talks bore fruit on Friday. In return for delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho, FWS agreed to erase a controversial Endangered Species Act opinion that governed how wolf populations are monitored.
Instead, the agency would come up with a new and comprehensive delisting rule for gray wolves that would cover the entire Rocky Mountain region, including Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and Utah. It would also employ an independent team of scientists to monitor how Montana and Idaho manage their delisted wolves.
But the settlement splintered the original coalition of plaintiffs, with at least three environmental groups refusing to participate. The breakup prompted Earthjustice, the law firm representing the coalition, to withdraw from the case.
Groups agreeing to the settlement included Defenders of Wildlife, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club and Wildlands Network.
Dissatisfied coalition members included the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Clearwater and Western Watersheds Project. The Humane Society of the United States was not listed on either side.
"We felt we were getting the most we could get out of the settlement," Defenders of Wildlife Rocky Mountain Region director Mike Leahy said on Friday. "We got a new delisting rule, recovery goals reviewed with modern science, and an independent science review. And there's no need now for Congress to step in and take wolves off the endangered species list."
Alliance for the Wild Rockies director Michael Garrity compared the settlement to "turning over the civil rights problem in the '60s to the governors of Mississippi and Alabama."
"We went to court because we thought they shouldn't be delisted, and we won," Garrity said. "We don't want to beat ourselves."
Both sides of the coalition said congressional meddling was a motivator to reach a deal. Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg has introduced a bill to remove wolves from any endangered species protection, while Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus put a rider in the government budget bill that would reinstate the 2009 delisting decision. Neither measure has been acted on yet.
"I'm pleased to see that putting legislative pressure on this urgent situation has led to a settlement, but we're not out of the woods yet," Tester said in an email statement Friday. "A judge will decide whether this agreement can move forward. Until Montana is managing wolves under Montana's common-sense management plan, I will continue pushing legislation in Congress to get this issue resolved."
Rehberg was unimpressed with what he called a "short-term, incomplete settlement."
"Fool us once, shame on you - fool us twice shame on us," Rehberg said in an email. "But I'm not going to sit around and wait for them to fool us a third time with another lawsuit that once again removes Montana's right to manage our own wildlife. My bill will fix this mess once and for all, which is why it has broad bipartisan support from around the country. Wolf management needs to be left to the states."
Gov. Brian Schweitzer also claimed credit for the settlement, saying his announcement last month that Montana would stop investigating wolf livestock depredations prompted the parties to action.
"We said we were going to change the way we were going to manage wolves in Montana, and we were fed up with no progress in Congress," Schweitzer said in a phone interview Friday. "Sometimes you have a large boulder perched on the side of the hill, and with appropriate leverage you can get that boulder rolling down the hill. We applied the proper leverage."
Under the settlement, Montana would recover the right to hold public wolf hunts and would try to keep at least 300 wolves in the state. It currently has at least 556 wolves, according to a 2010 wolf population survey.
The agreement includes a pledge by the environmental groups not to bring any more lawsuits against the wolf delisting rule before March 31, 2016. They also promised not to petition for federal protection of any other wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains for three years.
But it also includes a clause that if Congress removes protection from wolves or blocks the court's acceptance of the settlement, then the deal is off.
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president David Allen said his group opposes the settlement and still wants a congressional solution.
"It has not fixed the problem," Allen said on Friday. "It leaves too many issues open-ended. It doesn't remove federal oversight or further lawsuit opportunities, so we don't support it. We prefer delisting of gray wolves, certainly in the Northern Rockies DPS (distinct population segment) and the Great Lakes. They've been recovered there for decades."
The agreement also came the same week the Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to fight a federal court ruling that it wrongly rejected Wyoming's wolf management plan in 2010. Wyoming's plan came through its Legislature rather than its state wildlife management agency. It made wolves a trophy hunting animal in a small area around Yellowstone National Park and classified it a shoot-on-sight pest in 88 percent of the state.
Schweitzer said there appeared to be some movement there as well, with a possible Wyoming agreement to try a plan like Montana's or Idaho's.
Judge Molloy has not said when he might rule on the settlement. The 9th Circuit was scheduled to start reviewing the case on March 24.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.