Anybody who follows the endlessly volatile wolf issue—and it's hard not to follow it with all the news coverage—knows the greens won a big victory last month. Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court sided with Earthjustice and 12 conservation organizations and essentially relisted, albeit temporarily, the wolf as an endangered species.
So, what now?
We must keep in mind that Molloy's ruling doesn't overturn the proposed rule to delist the wolf. Instead, it says the wolf is endangered while the courts decide if it is or not. If agencies prevail in the main case, Molloy's ruling would merely go down as an aggravating delay for agencies in implementing hunting seasons and state management.
This leaves agencies with three choices:
• Appeal Molloy's decision to relist the wolf in addition to continuing to fight the primary legal battle over delisting.
• Ignore Molloy's ruling and concentrate on trying to win the delisting case, forgetting about wolf hunting seasons for this year and perhaps next year, too.
• Suck it up, meet with the greens, and have a little "out-of-court settlement" to resolve the wolf issue right now.
I asked both Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the federal agency in charge of endangered species programs, and Chris Smith, chief of staff, for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, what their agencies plan to do. Both dodged that question but didn't rule out any of the three options.
I called Suzanne Asha Stone, northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, and Doug Honnold, managing attorney for Earthjustice, self-acclaimed as "the nation's leading environmental law firm," which is handling the case for the 12 conservation groups, to ask them what the agencies would have to do for them to accept delisting and withdraw the lawsuit. Keeping in mind that Stone only speaks for her organization, not the other groups, and that Honnold can only speculate on what his clients might decide, both gave me the same answer.
The two major sticking points are lack of what's called "genetic connectivity" and Wyoming's totally unacceptable wolf control plan. Neither Stone or Honnold would guarantee that fixing these two problems would make wolf delisting litigation-proof, but I strongly suspect resolving them would keep us out of court.
The first point, Wyoming's dual-status plan that declares the wolf a "predator" (Wyomingish for vermin) in 90 percent of the state so, as Honnold says, "it can be killed by anybody anywhere" needs to go away. Radical pro-wolfers are probably loving Wyoming right now because if the state doesn't give up on dual status, it may hold up delisting for decades allowing the wolf to reclaim its entire former range throughout the western United States. Already, we have indications of wolf packs forming in Washington and Oregon. Soon, Colorado greens will have their dream come true, wolves in Rocky Mountain National Park to control elk numbers. All thanks to Wyoming.
"It's going to take the other two states (Idaho and Montana) and other interested parties to push Wyoming to develop a safety net instead of a free-firing zone," Honnold speculates. Even though the FWS had earlier rejected Wyoming's plan, "when (former Idaho Governor Dirk) Kempthorne came into office (as Secretary of the Interior), the Wyoming plan that had been unacceptable became magically acceptable."
And, of course, it gave Judge Molloy another good reason to enjoin delisting, giving Wyoming exactly what it did not want--more wolves and more federal control. Altogether now, can we all say "self-defeating insanity"?
Wyoming has to be a team player and along with the other states give in to the greens, regardless of how much it hurts. Those bruised egos eventually heal.
Addressing the second point, genetic exchange, also seems easy enough. By definition "genetic exchange" means wolves moving back and forth between the three recovery zones (Yellowstone, central Idaho and northwestern Montana) without being whacked. Even though the Yellowstone wolves have prospered, they have done it in genetic isolation.
Like it or not, it's a numbers game. As I write this commentary, we have somewhere between 1,500 and 2,200 wolves running around the northern Rockies, but not many of them making it from one recovery zone to the other without being "controlled."
Collectively, the three state management plans call for killing down the population to about 1,100 wolves. Based on the science he has read, only having 1,100 wolves minimizes the chance of genetic exchange, says Honnold, and Judge Molloy agreed with him and his clients.
"At a population level of 2,000 wolves, we are likely to have genetic exchange if we can maintain it for two years or more," Honnold says.
So now, I'm scratching my head. How hard can this be?
We have roughly 2,000 wolves, a tolerable but probably not ideal level for agencies or the livestock industry. I say go with the status quo and move on. It sure trumps any alternative we currently face, such as years of expensive litigation while wolves continue breeding and the real possibility of the greens prevailing in court and keeping the wolf an endangered species for a long time.
And, please, let's not do the is-there-a-number-between-1,100-and-2,000-that-might-work approach. The greens have an ace in the hole, and Molloy flopped another ace for them, so right now, they have the winning hand. Let's fold.
"We need to bring the stakeholders to the table and develop an acceptable plan," Stone proposes. "Montana did a great job in their plan in bringing all the stakeholders together, but this needs to be a region-wide effort."
But Bangs has little optimism of any such agreement. "Wolf management has nothing to do with reality. A rational person could sit down and figure this out in a minute. If this were any other animal, this would already be a done deal, but people aren't rational about wolves."
"It's a mess,” he admits. "And it's getting expensive."
Is anybody in Wyoming listening?
Bangs also accused me of being "too rational" (which hasn't happened too often) in suggesting agencies and greens could settle. Nonetheless, I persist in believing we could resolve the wolf issue by the end of next week.
This story first appeared in the Flathead Beacon on August 27, 2008.