CHEYENNE, Wyo. - A federal judge on Thursday ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider whether Wyoming's wolf management plan is adequate to meet recovery goals for the species.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne said the federal agency was wrong to insist that Wyoming agree to change its management plan to give wolves more protection before it would end federal oversight of the species.
Wyoming proposes to classify wolves as predators that could be shot on sight outside of Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area.
The federal government had rejected that management plan while accepting less harsh wolf management plans in Idaho and Montana. The Fish and Wildlife Service turned wolf management over to those states while leaving endangered species protections for wolves in Wyoming until a federal judge this summer ruled the species could not be divided along political lines.
Gray wolves are now considered an endangered species across the northern Rockies.
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat in the final weeks of his second term, had pressed the lawsuit against the federal agency.
"There's a point to be made here, which is that the Fish and Wildlife Service is certainly allowed to make a decision and change their mind, but when they do it, they have to do it on good science and good reasoning," Freudenthal said Thursday.
Jenny Harbine, an attorney with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., noted the judge did not rule on the management plan itself, but said the federal agency did not provide a reasoned justification for rejecting it.
"He did not say Wyoming's management plan is sufficient, and any management scheme that leaves wolves in 90 percent of Wyoming subject to ‘shoot on sight' hunting is on its face insufficient," she said.
Harbine represents a group of wildlife advocates who sued to reinstate federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.
"Wolves remain subject to federal protections under the Endangered Species Act and the Wyoming court's decision doesn't change that," she said.
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The federal government originally said it wanted to achieve a wolf population of 300 animals when it started its wolf reintroduction program in the Northern Rockies in the 1990s. Biologists say there are now at least 1,700 wolves in parts of six states.
Both Freudenthal and Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said they expect the federal government to appeal the ruling. The governor said he doesn't expect the ruling will have any immediate effect on wolf management in the state, which he said will continue to be in the federal government's hands.
Leith Edgar, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, said Thursday that the agency is still reviewing Johnson's decision, weighing its options and considering what its next steps will be.
The Fish and Wildlife Service itself helped Wyoming to draft its disputed state plan in 2007 and approved it the next year. However, the federal agency repudiated the plan after U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, Mont., criticized it later that year in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.
While environmental groups have criticized Wyoming's plan, ranchers and outfitters in Wyoming have sided with the state, saying it's critical to reduce the growing wolf population to protect other wildlife and livestock.
In response to Wyoming's lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service argued in Johnson's court in January that it rejected the state's plan because it didn't guarantee a continued minimum wolf population.
Johnson stated in his ruling Thursday that the agency needs to consider whether the state plan would be sufficient to preserve genetic connectivity among wolves in northwestern Wyoming and the greater Yellowstone area.
While Johnson's ruling was pending, Molloy this summer ruled it was improper of the Fish and Wildlife Service to retain federal wolf management in Wyoming while turning wolf management over to state governments in Idaho and Montana. In response, the agency took back authority over wolf management in those states, angering state officials and blocking wolf hunts that had been scheduled for this fall.
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission plans to discuss the implications of Johnson's ruling on Dec. 8, spokesman Mike Keckler said.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials had not seen the decision and could not immediately comment, agency spokesman Ron Aasheim said.