A reprieve for Yellowstone's wolves

Put down that shotgun! Judge restores protections, scolds feds.

Published July 21, 2008 8:42PM (EDT)

Call off the wolf hunt.

Yellowstone's gray wolves once again enjoy federal protection -- at least for now -- thanks to a ruling by a judge in Montana late last Friday. Judge Donald W. Molloy granted a preliminary injunction protecting the wolves in the area, while castigating the feds for "arbitrariness and capriciousness" in prematurely turning over the wolves' care to the states this spring.

Molloy's injunction will be in place until the resolution of a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, such as Earthjustice, which could take two to four years or even longer. The suit challenges the federal government's contention that the wolf population is healthy and no longer needs its help. Molloy's ruling has the effect of essentially forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect a population of gray wolves, which the agency claims is already self-sustaining.

Once all but eliminated in the northern Rockies, the gray wolf has staged a fantastic comeback in the region, with significant help from homo sapiens. In 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves from Canada were reintroduced to the area, and the new population has multiplied and thrived beyond biologists' wildest hopes, with about 1,500 wolves now living in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. The wolves have done so well that on March 28, 2008, the feds returned the task of managing the wolves over to those states, declaring the wolf population officially healthy.

Yet, over the past few months, 100 of the some 1,500 wolves in those states have been shot, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, including some wolves that had no history of preying upon livestock or domestic animals. And the carnage was only likely to get worse, given that all three states had scheduled wolf hunts for this fall. But now, thanks to Judge Molloy's ruling, those hunts won't be happening.

Doug Honnold, the lead attorney on the case for Earthjustice, said in an interview that he felt "relief, joy and gratification" at Molloy's ruling. "We're delighted that the wolves that were slated to be killed this fall with the hunts by all three states are saved, for the time being," he said.

Environmental groups like Earthjustice have argued that the gray wolves in Yellowstone are an isolated population without enough genetic diversity to survive for the long term. In his ruling, Judge Molloy agreed. As the Los Angeles Times reported, back in 1994 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited "genetic exchange between subpopulations" as a recovery goal for the species. Yet, according to a 2007 study commissioned by the same agency, "genetic exchange has not taken place," Judge Molloy wrote.

The wolves seem to be taking the news well. On Friday, wildlife biologists in Washington state captured two wolves believed to be the first in the state since the species was eradicated there in the 1930s.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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