CHEYENNE, Wyo. – A federal judge on Tuesday denied requests from the state of Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service and pro-hunting groups to change last week’s decision that reinstated federal protections for wolves in the state.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., leaves Wyoming and the Fish and Wildlife Service with the choice of either appealing or to developing a revised management plan. The planning process can take years and require more public comment, during which time Wyoming wolves would remain protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Wyoming wolf plan Jackson rejected took effect in 2012. It classified wolves as unprotected predators subject to being shot on sight in most of the state. Many ranchers and hunters in Wyoming are concerned that if left unchecked, wolves will take too heavy a toll on livestock and other wildlife.
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Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, issued a statement saying he’s disappointed by the judge’s ruling. He said his administration will consider the best way to regain state wolf management.
“Wyoming has managed wolves well above the minimum and buffer population numbers,” Mead said. “Overturning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting decision on a technicality highlights Wyoming’s concerns with the Endangered Species Act.”
Jackson has agreed with the Fish and Wildlife Service that wolves in the Northern Rockies have recovered. She also accepted the agency’s finding that wolves aren’t endangered or threatened within a significant portion of their range.
A spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency hasn’t decided how to proceed.
In response to legal challenges from conservation groups, Jackson ruled last week that the Fish and Wildlife Service shouldn’t have accepted Wyoming’s nonbinding promise to maintain at least 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Mead last week tried to take quick action to make the state’s minimum population promises binding under state law. But lawyers representing groups including the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Humane Society of the United States argued the state’s approach was insufficient.
Montana lawyer Tim Preso represents several conservation groups. He said Tuesday that Jackson’s ruling denied an effort by Wyoming and the federal government “to reinstate an illegal rule removing endangered species protections for wolves in Wyoming.”
Wyoming had requested fast action on its reconsideration request because the state had planned to allow hunters to begin killing wolves Wednesday in a trophy-hunting area bordering Yellowstone National Park. Jackson’s ruling means there will be no wolf hunt.
The Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves into Yellowstone in the 1990s. The agency approved an earlier Wyoming wolf-management plan but disavowed it in 2008 after a federal judge in Montana criticized it. Montana and Idaho manage their own wolf populations, and both states allow hunting.
Ralph Henry, deputy director for litigation at the Humane Society of the United States, said his group believes it’s time for state and federal regulators to take a new approach to Wyoming wolf management.
Henry said his clients have been concerned that Wyoming’s management plan showed the state was acting aggressively and recklessly to reduce wolf numbers to the bare minimum.
“We think that the federal court was right to put the brakes on that effort,” he said.