A federal appeals court ruled environmental groups can fight for a more thorough analysis of wolf-killing programs in Idaho backcountry, although the decision may not affect government plans to lower wolf populations there.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that five environmental groups did have standing to sue the U.S. Wildlife Services agency, even though a win might not save any wolves.
Federal government attorneys argued the groups had no standing to bring a case, because Idaho Department of Fish and Game managers could replace federal hunters and make the decision moot. The appeals court judges said there was no guarantee Idaho would take that action, and ordered a federal district court to hear the whole case.
“With the new decision, we can return to the heart of the matter: whether or not Wildlife Services adequately reviewed the ecological consequences of killing scores of wolves each year in Idaho,” Western Watersheds Project attorney Talasi Brooks wrote in an email. “This lawsuit is all about dispelling the myths and propaganda about the ‘big, bad wolf’ and getting federal agencies to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence that killing wolves to reduce livestock losses or increase populations of hunted wildlife is cruel, pointless, and doesn’t work.”
Western Watersheds was joined by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Clearwater, WildEarth Guardians and Predator Defense in challenging Wildlife Services. They argued the federal agency hadn’t done enough research to justify assisting the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s policy of reducing wolf populations to benefit elk herds in the Lolo zone along the Idaho-Montana border.
Gray wolves made the Endangered Species Act in 1974 after being nearly extirpated from the Lower 48 states by farmers, ranchers and trappers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to remote parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in 1994. That population reached the minimum goal of 30 breeding pairs in 2000, starting a series of failed attempts to remove the wolves from Endangered Species Act protection. After several court rejections, Congress passed a law in 2011 delisting Montana and Idaho wolves and blocking further court review.
Sport hunters in Idaho have killed between 200 and 356 wolves a year since 2011. Wildlife Services hunters have killed between 42 and 80 wolves suspected of attacking livestock each year in the same period. The federal hunters have taken up to 23 more wolves a year to protect deer and elk populations in Idaho’s Lolo zone. Over the past winter, the agency killed 73 wolves suspected of livestock attacks, and 10 to boost elk numbers.
In 2011, Wildlife Services developed an environmental assessment of its efforts helping limit the wolf kills of livestock and wildlife. The agency concluded its work with Idaho Department of Fish and Game would not have a significant environmental impact, and it declined to do a more comprehensive environmental impact analysis.
The five environmental groups sued Wildlife Services in 2016, arguing it should have done an environmental impact statement to take a harder look at how its wolf-killing would affect the overall population. A federal district court threw out the lawsuit, saying that even if Wildlife Services stopped killing wolves, the Idaho authorities could step in and kill the same number.
The Appeals Court judges called that a mistake, because Idaho officials hadn’t shown they were able to replace the federal hunters.
“Indeed, the fact that Wildlife Services has carried out nearly all lethal wolf management in Idaho since 2011, particularly through highly technical operations such as aerial hunting, suggests that IDFG may lack the expertise and resources to carry out those operations itself,” the judges wrote.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game spokesman Roger Phillips said that the state had capacity to continue wolf control policies on its own.
“We do that the expertise and can use our agency employees or other qualified contractors,” Phillips said on Wednesday. “We did it again this year. We hired a contractor in March and had seven wolves killed in aerial hunts.”