Wolf lawsuit hurts conservation cause, says attorney

By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian


The return of healthy wolf populations to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming is a success story unequaled in the history of endangered species management, and yet conservationists seem intent on snatching "defeat from the jaws of victory," a conservationist-attorney said Thursday.

Tom France, general counsel for the National Wildlife Federation, told the 27th Public Land and Resources Law Conference he was dismayed when a coalition of 17 environmental groups filed suit Wednesday, hoping to stop the removal of wolves from Endangered Species Act protection.

The National Wildlife Federation is not a party to the lawsuit and has no plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over wolf recovery, France said.

"I am disappointed that these groups cannot find another, better way to move wolf recovery forward," France said during a panel discussion on the legal, political and biological implications of wolf delisting.

The two-day conference at the University of Montana is focused on the Endangered Species Act and the litigation, regulations and collaboration it has produced in the West.

When work began on a wolf recovery plan two decades ago, everyone involved would have branded as fantasy any suggestion that there would be 800 wolves successfully inhabiting Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by the year 2003, France said.

That something so far-fetched became reality and then somehow wasn't christened a success is unbelievable, he added. "Yet that is precisely what has happened. We cannot find a way to make this success real, and that failure threatens to undermine the Endangered Species Act."

Led by Defenders of Wildlife, the groups that filed suit this week in U.S. District Court in Oregon object to the federal government's insistence that wolves are recovered because their populations are healthy and self-sustaining in three states.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has not even attempted to recover the species in California, Colorado, New York, Maine, Oregon or Washington, places historically inhabited by wolves, the lawsuit complained.

And those states where wolves exist - both in the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes regions - have drafted wolf management plans that call for the liberal use of lethal control of problem wolves, and for sport hunting, the suit said.

Wyoming, for example, has proposed to manage the species by declaring that wolves should be shot on sight as predators anywhere in the state other than national parks or wilderness areas.

And although France is disappointed by the lawsuit, he also chided the Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to bring all the different interest groups together before announcing how and where wolves would be restored.

"But who would we have invited to the table?" asked Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, who presided over the species' return to the northern Rockies.

"The Endangered Species Act says we are to establish a viable wolf population in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho," Bangs said. "And we are saying that we are done."

The Fish and Wildlife Service never intended to bring back wolves to Colorado or Oregon or Utah, Bangs said. "It is not the job of the Endangered Species Act to put wolves everywhere they might be, or everywhere they once were."

Indeed, both France and Chris Smith, chief of staff for Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said states like Colorado and Oregon could restore their historic wolf populations more quickly if wolves were taken off the endangered species list.

Once delisting occurs, wolf management will fall to each individual state.

So if Colorado wanted to reintroduce wolves to its backcountry, the state could simply write a wolf management plan, find a source of "surplus wolves" and ferry them across the border, Smith said.

"If we were delisted, Colorado could have some of our wolves," he said. "We'd gladly bundle them up and fly them to Denver."

Smith said he worries that the environmentalists' lawsuit will derail Montanans' support for recovering wolves and taking over their management.

If too many years pass while the controversy over other states is decided in court, Montana could lose the public support for state management it worked so hard to achieve in recent years, Smith said.

"Will we be able to sustain the political energy and synergy that has developed around the wolf management plan?" Smith asked. "That consensus could erode if we get two, three, four years down the road."

Already, he said, he is receiving e-mails from anti-wolf activists who think the lawsuit is a trick intended to allow the continued proliferation of wolves and the eventual ruination of the livestock industry.

Ultimately, environmentalists risk losing "an opportunity to gain the confidence of the American public" by delaying the removal of wolves from the endangered species list, France said.

"This is our chance to show that conservation can be woven into the fabric of society in creative ways," he said. "And why? Why can't we celebrate that success?"

The University of Montana's Public Land and Resources Law Conference continues at 9 a.m. Friday with a talk on "Endangered Species Act Litigation as Behavior Regulator" by William J. Snape III, chief counsel for Defenders of Wildlife.

Presentations continue throughout the day in the Castles Center at UM's School of Law. The 27th annual event is sponsored by UM's Public Land and Resources Law Review, Center for the Rocky Mountain West and College of Forestry and Conservation. All sessions are free and open to the public.


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