KALISPELL - Wolves are back on the endangered species list, after U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled Thursday that populations in Montana and Idaho cannot be considered separately from Wyoming's wolves.
In a 50-page decision, Molloy said "the rule delisting the gray wolf (in Montana and Idaho) must be set aside because, though it may be a pragmatic solution to a difficult biological issue, it is not a legal one."
With the relisting, this fall's planned wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho are now on hold, at least until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can assure an adequate protection plan in Wyoming.
"The ruling not only strikes down the delisting decision," said Kieran Suckling, executive director at the Center for Biological Diversity, "it invalidates the Bush-era Interior solicitor's memo justifying the concept of listing/delisting species and populations in only a portion of their range."
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game declined to comment immediately after the ruling was released, saying they had yet to read the whole decision.
"If we understand the ruling correctly, Judge Molloy is telling the federal government that because Wyoming still doesn't have adequate regulatory mechanisms to manage wolves, you can't delist the wolf in Montana and Idaho." said Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "We simply can't manage wildlife successfully in that environment. We must have the ability to manage wildlife, to do our job, to seek a balance among predator and prey. As a practical matter, as wildlife managers, we need the authority to respond to the challenges wolves present every day."
Historically, wolves were exterminated from the region by the 1930s. In 1974, they were given Endangered Species Act protections.
A decade later, in 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a wolf recovery plan, calling for at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves for three consecutive years in each of three recovery areas - northwest Montana, central Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone area.
Then, in 1994, the agency set aside portions of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for wolf reintroduction, considering those transplants part of a "nonessential experimental population."
That same year, the agency released an environmental review concluding that the initial goal - 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves in the three recovery areas - was likely a bare minimum. Instead, it now advised true species recovery would require at least 30 breeding pairs and some 300 wolves in a "metapopulation," with genetic exchange between subpopulations.
By 2007, the species had met that threshold for eight consecutive years, and on Feb. 27, 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a rule delisting the wolves.
Conservationists sued to stop that move, however, and the court agreed the agency had not established proof of genetic exchange between wolf populations. In addition, the court ruled that while Montana and Idaho had established suitable wolf management plans, Wyoming had not.
The agency went back to the drawing board, and on April 2, 2009, again acted to remove the species from ESA protections.
New evidence, agency biologists said, now proved the missing genetic exchange. And as for Wyoming's failed management plan, the agency simply carved that state out of the plan - delisting in Montana and Idaho, but not Wyoming.
Idaho and Montana immediately authorized public wolf hunts.
Conservationists again cried foul, arguing, among other things, that a biological population could not be parsed on state-line or political boundaries.
On Thursday, Molloy agreed with that argument.
Specifically, Molloy ruled that the Endangered Species Act does not allow only part of a species to be listed as endangered, nor does it allow a distinct population segment to be subdivided.
By separating Wyoming's wolves from Montana's and Idaho's, he said, the agency had violated the law.
"It is illegal because it is a political determination, not a biological one," Suckling said. "The biological population must be taken as a whole, not broken down into politically determined parts in order to justify delisting."
Suckling called the decision "a victory for all wildlife, not just the wolf, because it forces the federal government to treat species as a whole, not divide them into politically convenient pieces so it can strip them of protection."
While Molloy's decision was based on the parsing of the population, he did not rule on an accompanying complaint that the species is not, in fact, recovered.
Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Montana has done everything it's been asked to do in developing a state management program, but now will have to apply federal law and regulations once more.
"This puts a spotlight on Wyoming and seeing what can be done with Wyoming," Sime said.
Molloy's decision means ranchers in northwestern Montana will no longer be able to haze, harass or kill wolves that prey on their livestock, Sime said.
Wolves in southwestern Montana will revert to their "experimental population" status and ranchers there will still be able to kill wolves that attack their animals, she said.
But a big blow is the loss of a hunting season, Sime said.
"That's clearly a management tool that we want to have in the toolbox. We think it's legitimate and appropriate," she said.
Both Idaho and Montana held wolf hunts last year. Montana's kill ended with 73 wolves and Idaho's with 185.
At the end of 2009, there were at least 843 wolves in Idaho, 524 in Montana and 320 in Wyoming, with more in parts of Oregon and Washington state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at email@example.com.