July 18 was a historic day for wolf conservation in the Northwest. Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont. granted a preliminary injunction placing Northern Rockies wolves back under federal protection.
Unless overturned, this protection will stay in place until a court case challenging the delisting of wolves in the Northwest is decided.
The basis of the judge's decision is three-fold.
First, the judge found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's original 1994 minimum recovery plan for gray wolves in the region required that wolves in each of the three recovery areas (central Idaho, northwest Montana and Yellowstone National Park) be connected as one "metapopulation." That means the various packs of wolves need to be able to reach each other in order to breed and raise pups without inbreeding. Yet, Fish and Wildlife's own research proved otherwise. In its study conducted at 2004's wolf population levels, which were nearly three times higher than Fish and Wildlife's recovery number of 30 breeding pairs, these wolf subgroups were still not connected.
Second, the judge ruled against a Wyoming law that allows unregulated wolf killing in nearly 90 percent of the state. Fish and Wildlife firmly rejected Wyoming's hostile wolf management plan in 2003, then "flip-flopped without explanation" by approving the plan with "the same deficiencies" in 2007.
Finally, the judge also noted that all three states had plans to allow hunts this fall, which would have permitted more than 500 wolves to be killed this year alone.
Reinstating federal protection for wolves in the region will stop this year's overly aggressive hunting season, but it won't stop the states from continuing to play a significant role in the management of wolves. State agencies can still help livestock owners with conflict-prevention measures to avoid losses, and wolves that switch to preying on livestock can still be killed.
Defenders of Wildlife and other groups will continue to actively work with livestock owners and agencies to help provide the tools and methods that reduce or prevent livestock losses to wolves and other native carnivores.
Amazingly enough, the same day that Judge Molloy reinstated federal protections for wolves in the region, events in Oregon and Washington showed the importance of his decision.
For the first time in almost a century, a pack of wolves with pups was documented in Washington state. That same day, Oregon wolf biologists discovered the state's first documented wolf pack and pups since the species was eradicated in the 1930s.
Biologists are celebrating this news because the return of wolves means that these ecosystems can sustain greater biodiversity of other native species. If we manage wolves responsibly in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, we will see more successes like this played out in neighboring states.
Ultimately, we do want to see wolves relieved of their federal protections and managed by the states in a responsible and sustainable manner. But excluding stakeholders and ignoring science for the sake of political expediency has clearly failed. We need a process that brings together a balance of stakeholders to craft wolf and livestock management plans based on solid science.
As Westerners who share a deep respect for our natural resources, we can make this a reality.
Suzanne Asha Stone, of Boise, is with Defenders of Wildlife.
This story first appeared in the Idaho Statesman on August 17, 2008.