WY Wolf Management Overturned
by Cat Urbigkit, Pinedale Online!
September 23, 2014
Wolf advocates are rejoicing that a federal court in Washington, D.C. has set aside Wyoming’s authority to manage wolves in the state, bringing the species back under protection of the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to delist wolves and transfer management of the species to the State of Wyoming was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Fund for Animals, Humane Society of the United States, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club.
There were three major points to the lawsuit:
• the decision was arbitrary and capricious because Wyoming’s regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to protect the species
• the level of genetic exchange shown in the record does not warrant delisting
• and the gray wolf is endangered within a significant portion of its range.
The court sided with wolf advocates on only the first point, but that was enough to overturn the state’s management authority. The decision stated, "The Court will grant plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in part and deny it in part and remand the matter back to the agency because it finds that the Service could not reasonably rely on unenforceable representations when it deemed Wyoming’s regulatory mechanisms to be adequate. Given the level of genetic exchange reflected in the record, the Court will not disturb the finding that the species has recovered, and it will not overturn the agency’s determination that the species is not endangered or threatened within a significant portion of its range. But the Court concludes that it was arbitrary and capricious for the Service to rely on the state’s nonbinding promises to maintain a particular number of wolves when the availability of that specific numerical buffer was such a critical aspect of the delisting decision."
The rub of the court decision focuses on the fact that Wyoming’s commitment to manage for a wolf population above minimum management targets was spelled out in an Addendum to the Wyoming Wolf Management Plan – instead of regulation.
The court explained: "The Service’s stated recovery goal for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountain region is "[t]hirty or more breeding pairs comprising some 300+ wolves in a metapopulation (a population that exists as partially isolated sets of subpopulations) with genetic exchange between subpopulations." FWS divided the overall numeric goal among the three states that comprise the Northern Rocky Mountains, so Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are each required to have a minimum of ten breeding pairs and 100 wolves. And because the "numerical component of the recovery goal represents the minimum number of breeding pairs and individual wolves needed to achieve and maintain recovery," the 2009 rule requires that Montana and Idaho each maintain a fifty percent buffer above their individual minimum requirements. "In other words, Montana and Idaho must each manage for at least fifteen breeding pairs and 150 wolves. This "buffer above the minimum recovery target" provides an "adequate safety margin, recognizing that all wildlife populations, including wolves, can fluctuate widely over a relatively short period of time."
In delisting the gray wolf in Wyoming, though, the Service took a different approach. Rather than explicitly requiring the state to maintain a fifty percent buffer above its minimum goal, the Service recognized the fact that a significant portion of wolf habitat in Wyoming falls outside the jurisdiction of the state, in federally controlled park land and Native American reservations, and it determined that the wolf population in those areas within the state’s borders could serve as the buffer. So the Service set a minimum goal for Wyoming of ten breeding pairs and 100 wolves – instead of the 15/150 as in Montana and Idaho – but explained that the wolves found in Yellowstone National Park and on the reservation would not be counted towards achieving that goal."
"The Service also concluded, though, that Wyoming would need to manage the population in state-controlled lands above the minimum requirement in order to meet the requirement. "Wyoming will, and must, maintain a buffer to consistently meet its minimum management targets." But rather than identify a specific percentage or numeric buffer, as in Idaho and Montana, the Service relied upon the representations in the Addendum that Wyoming intended to manage above the minimum target to buffer the wolf population."
The Addendum stated this:
"Wyoming is firmly committed to a population at least at these levels as reflected in State statute, regulations, and its management plan. In order to meet these goals and allow for continued management flexibility, Wyoming intends to manage for a population above its minimum management targets."
The problem is that the wording of the Addendum is not a legally enforceable commitment that would satisfy the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service requirement that the state maintain a buffer above the minimum 10/100 numbers.
The court decision stated, "the Service expressly relied upon its understanding that Wyoming would maintain more than ten breeding pairs and 100 wolves within its jurisdiction as a necessary predicate for the delisting" …. Thus, the Court concludes that the challenged delisting decision did in fact rest, at least in part, upon the statements made by the state in the Addendum that it would be managing the species to achieve a goal of more than the ten breeding pairs or 100 wolves mandated by state law."
The court continued: "In this case, the agency did not merely consider the nonbinding statements in the Addendum as one aspect of the state’s overall regulatory scheme: two out of five of the original peer reviewers found the regulatory mechanisms to be inadequate in the absence of a buffer, and the Addendum was submitted by the state in response. The record reflects that FWS specifically relied on the representations in the Addendum as the basis for its conclusion that Wyoming would do what the agency had determined that it must do: manage above the 10/100 minimum. The Court finds that under those circumstances, the reliance on mere assurances was inappropriate, and it rendered the FWS decision arbitrary and capricious."
The full court decision and order may be viewed by clicking on the links below.