BOISE, Idaho – A federal judge has rejected a request by conservation groups to stop Idaho from killing wolves from two packs in central Idaho as part of the state’s efforts to bolster elk numbers in the area.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge on Friday denied the temporary restraining order sought by the groups who contend the large-scale removal of wolves contravenes the 1964 Wilderness Act and other federal acts.
Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice representing the groups, said an appeal was filed late Friday to begin the process of having the case heard by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We’re hoping with a fresh set of eyes to look at the case we’ll have an opportunity to do something to protect the wilderness values in the area before all the wolves are killed,” Preso said Saturday.
Idaho wildlife officials hired a hunter late last year to begin killing two packs in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Officials recently said nine wolves have been killed so far from the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek wolf packs. It’s unclear how many wolves are in the two packs.
Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project and Wilderness Watch filed the lawsuit Jan. 6 asking the judge to stop the plan immediately to give the case time to work through the courts. The environmental groups are joined by Ralph Maughan, a former Idaho State University professor, conservationist and longtime wolf recovery advocate from Pocatello.
The groups say the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to allow the state-hired hunter to use the Forest Service’s backcountry airstrips and cabin demonstrates that the federal agency has approved of the state plan. The hunter, Gus Thoreson of Salmon, set out in mid-December. He had to fly into two backcountry airstrips before heading out on horseback with a team of three mules to reach the remote Forest Service ranger cabin.
Federal officials and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are named as defendants in the case. The state agency didn’t return a call from the Associated Press on Saturday.
Lodge in the 15-page ruling denying the temporary restraining order said the conservation groups failed to prove they would likely succeed in their arguments. He also ruled the groups wouldn’t suffer irreparable harm if the wolves are killed off in the area.
In rejecting the request, Lodge said the Forest Service hadn’t taken actions that he could rule on as they applied to the Wilderness Act, National Forest Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Special Use Permit Regulations. He said the state hunter using the airstrips and cabin didn’t amount to a decision by the federal agency.
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Preso said the conservation groups viewed the Forest Service’s lack of action as part of the problem.
“The Forest Service with a sort of Pontius Pilate approach just washed its hands of the affair,” he said. “We’re asking the federal courts to force the agency to honor its responsibilities.”
Generally, the federal government manages the land and state officials manage wildlife. The conservation groups contend that federal law as established by Congress for wilderness areas requires federal managers to take responsibility for wildlife also as part of the wilderness.
“Wolves are a key part of the wilderness character,” Preso said.
As a result, he said, the Forest Service has “a responsibility to protect this place as a wilderness, not as an elk farm. We’re asking the federal courts to force the agency to honor its responsibilities.”
The groups are also concerned that wolves will continue to be eliminated from the area in future years under Idaho’s elk management plan.
“There is every reason to believe that this is not going to be a one-off,” Preso said. “They have set a goal of inflating the elk population by removing wolves. According to their own plan that’s a multiyear undertaking. So I see every reason to believe that this is going to be a recurring activity.”
Idaho officials in arguing to prevent the temporary restraining order said the wilderness area includes not only the historical presence of wolves, but also the historical presence of elk whose numbers have fallen with the “human intervention of wolf reintroduction.”
In his ruling, Lodge said the growth of the wolf population in the state since their reintroduction in the early 1990s is a factor against him ruling that the conservation groups would suffer irreparable injury with the wolves being killed through the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s plan.
“The evidence in the current record shows that the IDFG program for hunting wolves will not result in the loss of the species as a whole,” he wrote.
Last year, state game managers estimated Idaho’s wolf population at 683, an 11 percent drop from 2012. The highest total was in 2009, when it estimated 859 wolves were in the state.