Judge Johnson hears wolf plan debated in federal court
Cheyenne – When Wyoming Wolf Coalition attorney Harriet Hageman asked those she represented in the federal courtroom to stand, well over half of the audience rose to their feet.
Hageman was one of several lawyers presenting arguments Jan. 29 in Cheyenne in the State of Wyoming, Park County and Wyoming Wolf Coalition litigation against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) regarding the federal management of the gray wolf in Wyoming.
In the press conference at the Wyoming Stock Growers Association headquarters following the hearing, Hageman said that physical representation of Wyoming’s agriculture and sportsman community made an impact on U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson.
“That view was worth more than I could say,” said Hageman, thanking the audience for their interest, dedication and involvement.
In the two-hour hearing Wyoming’s lawyers made their case for why the FWS should delist the wolf and turn over the predator’s management to the state.
The points emphasized in the arguments from both sides included whether Wyoming is counting too heavily on eight breeding pairs in Yellowstone National Park, whether Wyoming’s trophy game area is sufficient to protect a recovered wolf population while providing “genetic connectivity” and the legislative intent of Wyoming’s wolf management plan.
But Hageman said in her opening statement there was only one question before FWS, the state and the court. “That is this: does Wyoming’s wolf management plan protect a wolf population at or above recovery numbers?”
“We can argue about specifics and particular numbers, whether the Big Horns are habitat, about the fact that maybe it’s not quite fair that Wyoming can count Yellowstone wolves, whether there should be wolves in Natrona County or wolves in Crook County. None of that matters,” she said. “There’s one question – does the wolf management plan protect a recovered wolf population?”
Wyoming Deputy Attorney General Jay Jerde, who represented the State, emphasized there’s a significant difference between this litigation in Wyoming and the wolf lawsuit in Montana.
“The first delisting rule in 2003 was challenged with the lawsuit filed in Montana,” said Jerde. “The Montana court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the delisting rule, and the Service used that as an excuse to step away from it, change position and decide the Wyoming plan is no longer good.”
Hageman commented, “It was illegal, unreasonable, contrary to science and a violation of the Endangered Species Act for the defendants, the Fish and Wildlife Service, to reject the Wyoming wolf management plan.”
There are currently an estimated 1,650 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The recovery goal was 300 wolves evenly distributed between the three.
Michael Eitel, lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice defending FWS, suggested natural threats like disease and human-caused mortality warrant a need for management above more than 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves in the state’s borders.
When asked by Judge Johnson what the target is, if it’s not the 15/150 number, Eitel said it’s a “discretionary instance,” pointing to Idaho and Montana who manage for 700 and 300 wolves, respectively.
He expressed concern that Wyoming estimates eight breeding pairs in Yellowstone National Park, which has supported fewer in the last several years. “Fish and Wildlife determined with the aggressive control down to seven pairs outside the Park, and the Park not likely to maintain eight pairs, 15 total pairs in Wyoming is not likely to be met,” said Eitel.
Wyoming lawyers contended the management plan says Wyoming will manage for seven breeding pairs outside the Park, and more when necessary to maintain the 15/150 number.
Eitel also stated, “The trophy game area is too small because of the effects of mortality in the predatory animal area. Wyoming’s scheme manages the population down to minimum levels and relies on Yellowstone to carry the majority of the population.”
Wyoming’s lawyers said there is no biological evidence that the current trophy game area couldn’t maintain the needed wolf population, and that there is no biological or legal reason for statewide trophy classification.
Eitel also said, referring to the genetic connectivity concept, that wolves need to disperse south of Jackson – and outside the trophy game area – to reach the Idaho population. He said any farther north the Tetons were a barrier to the West and that Yellowstone corridors are “saturated” by the resident wolf population.
Wyoming Wool Growers Executive Vice President Bryce Reece said in the post-hearing press conference, “First we heard we had a problem in Yellowstone because it only had six breeding pairs, but we need the wolves to go south because Yellowstone is so ‘saturated.’ Apparently saturated is six pairs in two million acres.”
Hageman asked how much more contiguous one can get than Yellowstone Park with Montana and Idaho. “This epitomizes the straws the Service has grasped at to attack a viable, scientific and biological management plan that will protect wolves.”
“The reason predator status is so significant to Wyoming, and the people sitting in this room, is that it has do with the ability to control a dangerous, vicious predator that lives on their livelihood,” said Hageman. “Without predator control in areas of Wyoming outside the trophy game area we will not be able to protect wildlife, livestock, citizens and the other interests we have in this state.”
However, Eitel maintained that prolonged human-caused mortality cannot be survived by wolves. “The future conservation of the gray wolf depends almost solely on state regulation of human-caused mortality,” he said.
“We will kill wolves, that’s parts of the deal,” said Hageman. “It was never part of the deal to have unlimited wolves in this state. I find it shocking when we have a minimum of 1,600 wolves that we don’t have Fish and Wildlife apologizing for creating the fiasco we have because they’ve refused to properly manage them.”
“Wyoming has done what was requested 20 years ago. It’s tolerated a predator, protected it and provided food,” said Hageman. “We are willing to make sure we protect a recovered wolf population. That doesn’t mean 1,000, 1,500 or 800, but 15 and 150, as they defined it.”
Regarding the timeline for a decision by the Court, Hageman said it could be weeks, months or longer, but added, “I’m going to walk away from today saying that we won.”
Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.