Wolf advocates sue Fish and Wildlife over missed deadline

Aug. 10—Environmental and animal rights advocates launched a lawsuit Tuesday charging the federal government with failing to act on their petition to restore Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Sierra Club contend that Idaho and Montana, by passing laws in 2021 that liberalized wolf hunting and wolf control rules, put the species at risk of becoming threatened. The groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2021 to restore ESA protections to wolves in the two states. The wildlife agency accepted the petition, giving it a year to make a decision.

According to the lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service was supposed to make a determination on relisting by June 1 of this year but has not yet done so. They are asking Federal Judge Donald W. Molloy, of Missoula, Mont., to order the agency to make a decision.

"Because Idaho and Montana are hellbent on eradicating wolves from their states, these animals desperately need federal protection now," said Andrea Zaccardi, carnivore conservation legal director at the Center of Biological Diversity. "The Fish and Wildlife Service can't stand idly by while these states let hunters and trappers kill hundreds of wolves every year."

The Idaho Legislature opposed wolf introduction more than 25 years ago and has long wanted to trim wolf numbers. Last year, it passed a law that eliminated trapping and hunting bag limits on wolves, allowed the state to hire private contractors to kill wolves and liberalized methods of take for hunters and trappers — especially on private land. Montana approved a similar law.

At the end of last year, Idaho had an estimated minimum wolf population of about 1,500, which is about the same as the state's population estimates for 2020 and 2019.

Some wolf advocates claim Idaho is attempting to reduce wolf numbers by 90% and some anti-wolf advocates have said they would like to see that happen. Idaho is required to maintain a minimum population of 100 wolves with at least 10 breeding pairs, according to the rule later enshrined in federal legislation that removed the predator from federal protection in 2009. If the population were ever to dip to 150, it would trigger a listing review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But nothing in the new law directs the state to reduce wolf numbers by that amount. Despite hunters and trappers killing hundreds of wolves per year under previous rules that included generous bag limits and long seasons, the population has yet to dramatically decline. However, the new law liberalizing the rules governing the killing of wolves has been in place for a little more than a year.

Earlier this year, Idaho Fish and Game director Ed Schriever told the Tribune the state's policy is to manage for a sustainable wolf population while minimizing wolf attacks on livestock and keeping the state's deer and elk herds healthy. He noted the 2009 Fish and Wildlife Service-authored rule, which removed wolves in the Northern Rockies from federal protection, suggested a population of about 1,100 wolves — with roughly 500 in Idaho, 400 in Montana and 200-300 in Wyoming — was appropriate and anything higher might lead to chronic attacks on livestock and reductions of deer and elk herds.

"I don't think Idaho's vision for wolf management is that far removed from what the (Fish and Wildlife) Service described in the 2009 delisting rule," he said in February.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman declined comment on the lawsuit and told The Associated Press the agency's review is ongoing.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.