Putting wolves back under Endangered Species Act protection stirred up a predictable frenzy of cheers and jeers, but also revealed an equally frustrated middle ground.
U.S. District Judge Don Molloy ruled for the plaintiffs in Defenders of Wildlife et. al. vs. Ken Salazar et. al. on Thursday. Legally, that means Molloy agreed with a coalition of 13 conservation groups and against a coalition of government agencies, hunting and farming advocates, and the National Rifle Association.
That seems to represent a lot of people, and Molloy's courtroom was certainly packed with interested parties at a June 11 hearing in Missoula.
When his decision was released late Thursday, wolf advocates were thrilled and one opponent predicted widespread poaching. In between, a large group of Montanans felt unheard.
On Friday, Tony Hoyt of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers said the public discussion of "hunters" opposed to wolves and "conservationists" wanting them protected left people like him painted with the wrong brush.
"I hunt in wolf country and I seem to be getting my elk every year," Hoyt said. "There are a lot of responsible hunters like myself who think wolves have a place on the landscape."
The Montana Wildlife Federation's 7,500 members had an equally nuanced reaction.
"This decision, while reasoned and full of interesting perspectives, is a major setback with regard to Montana's management of wolves and our other species of wildlife," group president Tim Aldrich said. "We hope (the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks) will quickly and seriously look at appealing this decision."
Both Hoyt and Aldrich focused their ire at Wyoming, whose state wildlife officials have failed to produce a wolf management plan that passes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service muster.
Molloy ruled that the FWS erred when it allowed Montana and Idaho independent management authority, but kept Wyoming's wolves under federal control. He ignored other questions about state regulations, population size, connectivity and genetic exchange.
"Even if the (FWS) solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at heart a political solution that does not comply with the (Endangered Species Act)," Molloy wrote in his 50-page opinion. "The Northern Rocky Mountain (wolf population) must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population and protected accordingly."
"People on both sides of the wolf issue should look at Judge Molloy's ruling as an opportunity to hit the reset button and develop a legitimate recovery plan for Northern Rockies wolves," said Matt Skoglund of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the 13 plaintiffs. "We're thrilled with today's ruling, but now it's really time to update the recovery standards and come up with a plan that ensures the recovery of wolves in the Northern Rockies over the long term."
Toby Bridges of the anti-wolf group Lobo Watch predicted people would be pulling triggers.
"If Molloy, or any of these environmental organizations, think for a second that the decision of someone who is totally out of touch with modern wildlife management will keep hunters from killing wolves this fall and winter, they need to think again," Bridges wrote in an e-mail message. "In fact, the anger provoked by this ego-driven judge will more than likely result in the death of far more wolves than the quotas established by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Any wolf that now steps out in front of any hunter this fall is very likely to be shot ... and left to rot."
Montana's congressional delegation also wanted a say. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said Montana's management should have been allowed to continue.
"If Montana is going to be home to wolves, they've got to be managed in a way that works for the folks who live and work here," he e-mailed Friday. "This decision highlights the importance of bringing all parties together to find a regional solution."
Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg said he was disappointed some people weren't willing to consider the wolf a recovered species.
"It's high time for the billion-dollar environmental extremist industry to start listening to local experts and stop assuming all knowledge about wildlife issues resides outside of Montana," Rehberg said in an e-mail Friday. "State wildlife managers have legitimate concerns over depleting elk and deer populations and our livestock industry is faced with ever increasing wolf encroachment. Montana has developed a responsible wolf management plan and it should have been given a chance to succeed."
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president David Allen said he was looking to Congress to take the courts out of the picture by designating the gray wolf a recovered species.
"Wolves are not endangered, they're a fundraising tool for environmental groups," Allen said during a visit to Missoula on Friday. "Hunters brought wildlife back from the brink at the turn of the century and now they're having this crammed down their throats like they just don't matter. And here's the trickle-down. You're looking at losing $4 million to $6 million in nonresident hunting fees - that's the tag revenue alone. That's not the small-town economies, the hotels, the gas, they're not buying when they're not spending money here. When hunters stop coming, who's going to pay the salaries of Fish, Wildlife and Parks? Who's going to pay for managing all this?"
But the courts will probably remain in the picture for a while. A U.S. District Court judge in Wyoming is still considering the state's demand to go ahead with its own plan. And another challenge has been filed questioning the legality of delegating federal management authority to states.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.