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Environmental groups sue over feds’ decision not to restore protections for Northern Rockies wolves

Plaintiffs argue wildlife officials relied on ‘unfounded assumptions’ and ‘flawed’ population models in a February 2023 finding that wolves in the Northern Rockies are not facing an extinction threat.

A wolf is photographed at Yellowstone National Park. (Jacob W. Frank/NPS)

by Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

Environmental organizations filed two lawsuits Monday challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to restore federal protections for Northern Rockies wolves.

The groups are asking the court to scrap USFWS’ February finding that federal protections are not warranted and produce a new analysis that gives greater weight to the impact of human-caused mortality on the canid species.

The lawsuits, both filed in federal court, argue that USFWS relied on flawed population models and underestimated the impact of aggressive wolf-reduction measures in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming when it deemed a restoration of Endangered Species Act protections for Northern Rockies wolves unwarranted. 

Wolf in the Firehole area of Yellowstone National Park. (Jim Peaco/National Park Service)

USFWS had argued that its decision not to relist Northern Rockies wolves was based on its analysis of “the best available data” from federal, state and tribal sources, academic institutions and the public. The number and distribution of gray wolves, paired with the population’s genetic diversity, indicate that wolves are not facing extinction “now or in the foreseeable future,” the agency found.

Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Trap Free Montana, Wilderness Watch and five other groups are challenging that assessment, arguing in a press release that it “ignores obvious threats to the species, runs contrary to the best available science, and relies on flawed population models for its determination.” 

“The Biden administration and its Fish and Wildlife Service are complicit in the horrific war on wolves being waged by the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana,” Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas said in the release. “Idaho is fighting to open airstrips all over the backcountry, including in designated Wilderness, to get more hunters to wipe out wolves in their most remote hideouts. Montana is resorting to night hunting and shooting over bait and Wyoming has simply declared an open season. It’s unfortunate that citizens have to turn to the courts, but it seems that like their state counterparts, federal officials have lost all reverence or respect for these iconic wilderness animals.”

The lawsuit centers its argument on regulations and laws passed by lawmakers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in recent years. It also argues that estimates provided by a model that’s favored by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks — the Integrated Patch Occupancy Model, or iPOM — “are biased and result in population estimation errors” by underestimating territory size and pack numbers within a given area.

Western Watersheds and the co-plaintiffs are asking the court to nullify USFWS’ Feb. 7 decision on the grounds that it is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and not in accordance with the ESA” and start over to produce a fresh analysis. 

A separate lawsuit filed Monday by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and the Sierra Club makes similar claims: that the federal government reached an “irrational conclusion” that was “based on unfounded assumptions” and a “failure to consider and apply the best available science.”

A wolf moves through conifers in Yellowstone National Park in 2016. (Neal Herbert/National Park Service)

In a press release, Humane Society of the United States attorney Margie Robinson argued that the U.S. government has failed to rein in state governments that are succumbing to pressure from powerful anti-predator groups.

“Under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service cannot ignore crucial scientific findings,” Robinson said. “Rather than allow states to cater to trophy hunters, trappers and ranchers, the agency must ensure the preservation of wolves — who are vital to ensuring healthy ecosystems — for generations to come.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson Greg Lemon said the agency has not yet reviewed the lawsuits, both of which were filed in district court in Missoula.

“Our attention is focused on managing wolves in Montana,” Lemon said, adding that FWP anticipates issuing a final decision on its draft wolf management plan in the next few months. 

That plan shied away from establishing a minimum or maximum wolf population target, instead suggesting that it would “manage wolves with a primary objective of maintaining a healthy, sustainable population above the federal ESA listing criteria (15 breeding pairs or 450 wolves).”

This story was originally published by Montana Free Press at montanafreepress.org and was shared by WyoFile.