Wolves Ordered Removed

Wolves Ordered Removed

Court determines wolf introductions illegal

By: Staff  Date: 01/13/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |


In a stunning decision on December 12, 1997, US District Court Judge William Downes ordered removal of introduced wolves in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in response to lawsuits filed by the Farm Bureau Federations of several states and by several environmental organizations.

"Mindful of the dedication, talents, and money which have been expended in the development and implementation of the wolf recovery program, the court reaches this decision with the utmost reluctance," Downes said in his order. "The laudable ends aspired to by the wolf recovery plan cannot justify the Secretary's impermissible means."

The Secretary is Bruce Babbitt, head of the US Department of Interior. Babbitt signed the order implementing the reintroduction plan. Downes' decision declared the plan unlawful and ordered removal of the transplanted wolves. He also imposed a stay on the order pending appeal.

At issue is the use of a section of the Endangered Species Act that allows special treatment for "experimental populations" of wildlife. Under this section, the transplanted wolves were subject to removal, chasing, or death if they harassed or killed livestock. Experimental populations must not be introduced to areas where indigenous populations of the same species may exist because their presence reduces the full protection of the ESA for the native animals.




Wolf reintroduction has a long and turbulent history. Ranchers didn't want the predators and environmentalists lobbied for their return. The US Interior Department held hundreds of hours of hearings and pored over 160,000 written comments before devising the plan that would bring wolves back to Yellowstone and Idaho. Most environmental groups lobbied for the wolves. Babbitt gave the OK in June 1994, and in 1995 and 1996, the Fish and Wildlife Service brought 66 Canadian wolves for release in the two areas. They were designated an experimental population so that ranchers could retaliate if the wolves hunted their cattle or sheep.

According to background information provided with the court documents, the gray wolf subspecies known as Canis lupus irremotis (the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf) was listed as endangered in 1973. In 1986, a wolf den was discovered in Glacier National Park in Montana near the Canadian border - less than 400 miles from Yellowstone. This colony has subsequently grown to about 70 animals, leading to potential natural recolonization of Idaho and Yellowstone as has already occurred in the north central states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In 1987, recommendations favored natural recovery in northwestern Montana and Idaho and an experimental population in Yellowstone. However, the government decided to reintroduce wolves in Idaho as well.

The lawsuits

The Farm Bureau Federations of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho sued the government agencies involved in the wolf reintroduction program on several grounds, including:

  • the introduction of non-endangered Canadian wolves violates the ESA;
  • the experimental population in Yellowstone and Idaho is not separated geographically from non-experimental populations;
  • the introduction of Canadian wolves to an area outside their historical range violates the ESA;
  • the government failed to consult with affected landowners;
  • the government could not support the reintroduction as necessary to conserve the species as required by law;
  • the biological assessment failed to adequately analyze the adverse effects on endangered and threatened species in the re-introduction areas.

James and Cat Urbigkit sued the government for failure to protect and conserve the indigenous population of wolves in the Idaho experimental area and reiterated several of the complaints in the Farm Bureau suit.

The National Audubon Society, the Predator Project, Sinapu, and the Gray Wolf Committee joined in a suit against the Idaho portion of the plan on the grounds that the transplant of Canadian wolves removes legal protection of the ESA from the indigenous wolves and brings the offspring of native wolves under the experimental population rules, subjecting them to illegal harassment and killing.


Courts require that plaintiffs have standing to sue before a lawsuit can go forward. In other words, those who complain must have been damaged or face potential damage in some way by the action they are protesting.

The defendants challenged the farm bureaus' standing on several grounds, but the court ruled that "the requirements of section seven of the ESA protect not only the interests of those affected by species preservation, it also protects the economic interests of those who might be harmed by errant conservation measures" and found that the farm bureau met the requirements for standing.

In making his ruling on standing, the judge cited the 1997 US Supreme Court decision in Bennett v. Spear, a case to determine the scope of standing in ESA issues: "The obvious purpose of the requirement that each agency 'use the best scientific and commercial data available' is to ensure that the ESA not be implemented haphazardly, on the basis of speculation or surmise . . . we think it readily apparent that another objective (if not indeed the primary one) is to avoid needless economic dislocation produced by agency officials zealously but unintelligently pursuing their environmental objectives."

The gist of the complaints from the Audubon group and the Urbigkits centered on their enjoyment and study of wolves indigenous to the experimental areas. The Urbigkits said they were harmed by the plan because they have been studying and presenting information about naturally occurring wolves in the area since 1988 and that the transplanting of Canadian wolves prevents them from pursuing their work. Members of the environmental groups presented affidavits from members who were accustomed to hiking in the Idaho transplant area specifically to see, study, and enjoy the native wolves and to present programs about the animals to enhance their conservation.

Dismissing the defendants' claims that these complaints were based on psychological injuries, not concrete or palpable injuries, the court said: "It is clear that the person who observes or works with a particular animal threatened by a federal decision is facing perceptible harm, since the very subject of his interest will no longer exist" and granted standing to pursue these claims.

The ESA on experimental populations

In 1982, Congress amended the Endangered Species Act to allow for experimental, nonessential populations under a strict set of guidelines. It defined an experimental population as "any population (including any offspring arising solely therefrom) authorized by the Secretary for release under paragraph two, but only when and at such time as the population is wholly separate, geographically from nonexperimental populations of the same species."

Paragraph two includes:

  1. Authorization "outside the current range of such species if the Secretary determines that such release will further the conservation of such species."
  2. Authorization should be based on "the best available information, whether or not such population is essential to the continued existence of an endangered species or a threatened species."
  3. Experimental populations should be treated as a threatened (not endangered) species.

In his discussion on the case, the judge noted that Congress was clear in its intent to require that experimental status of transplanted populations be recognized only outside of an area of overlap with naturally occurring populations and sad: "The requirement that an experimental population only be authorized if it is 'outside the current range of the species' is a reflection of that intent. Given Congress' intent and the defendants' acknowledgment that naturally-occurring wolves exist in and will likely migrate to the experimental population areas, defendants' determination that the designated areas are outside the current range of the species is arbitrary and capricious.'

Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that lobbied heavily for the reintroduction plan and is working on similar plans to transplant grizzly bears into some areas of the west and wolves to the Adirondack Mountains in New York, and the National Wildlife Federation filed an appeal on Decembr 30, 1997. The case will move to the 10th Circuit Court in Denver, Colorado. Defenders has vowed to take the fight to the US Supreme Court if necessary.


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All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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