CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The future of Wyoming wolf management rides on a federal court hearing set for Friday in Washington, D.C.
The hearing before a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals comes two years after U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of Washington, D.C., sided with national environmental groups and rejected Wyoming’s wolf management plan.
Lawyers from the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are seeking to override Jackson’s 2014 decision while environmental groups are urging the appeals court to retain the federal protections for wolves in the state. The appeals court likely will issue a written decision several months after Friday’s hearing.
In her ruling, Jackson agreed with the Fish and Wildlife Service that wolves in the Northern Rockies had recovered. She also accepted the agency’s finding that wolves aren’t endangered or threatened within a significant portion of their range.
However, Jackson ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to trust nonbinding promises from the state of Wyoming to maintain at least 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, outside of Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
For two years before Jackson’s ruling, Wyoming had managed its own wolf population, declaring them unprotected predators that could be shot on sight in most of the state and classifying them as trophy game animals subject to regulated hunting around the borders of Yellowstone National Park.
Tim Preso, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Montana, represents a coalition of groups that sued to overturn Wyoming’s wolf plan. He plans to argue at Friday’s hearing that federal protections for wolves should remain in effect.
“For wolves to be delisted in Wyoming, the state has to establish a management framework that will ensure that they aren’t driven back into an imperiled status,” Preso said Tuesday.
“Wyoming has elected to follow a path that is different from any other state in declaring wolves vermin that can be killed on sight in 83.5 percent of Wyoming,” Preso said. “That puts a lot of pressure on the management of wolves in the remainder to sustain the species.”
Renny MacKay, spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said Tuesday that trophy hunters in 2012 killed 42 wolves out of the state’s set quota of 52. Another 25 wolves were killed that year in the state’s so-called predator zone, outside the trophy hunting area.
In 2013, trophy hunters in Wyoming killed 24 wolves out of the set quota of 43, MacKay said. Another 39 wolves were killed in the predator zone.
MacKay said the state proved in its two years of management that its wolf plan was in the best interest of wolves and the public. “We made sure that the state maintained a recovered population,” he said. “We had a conservative approach to hunting to do that and also made sure that there was genetic diversity in the population.”
Serena Baker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado, said Tuesday that her agency also believes wolf recovery efforts have been successful in Wyoming.
According to an agency release earlier this year, the Fish and Wildlife Service last year tallied 382 wolves including 30 breeding pairs were in Wyoming. The release states that 54 wolves were killed in the state last year under federal management.
Baker stated that 2016 has been a record year for wolf depredation on livestock in Wyoming. As of Sept. 2, she said, there have been 200 cattle and sheep killed by wolves. Losses are expected to continue into the late fall, she said.
The Wyoming Stock Growers Association and other agricultural interests in the state have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the pending federal appeal urging a return to state wolf management.