BILLINGS (Mont. (AP) — Friday’s U.S. government attorney asked a federal judge to uphold a decision of the waning Days of Trump Administration that lifted protections for gray wolves in most of the country. This was because Republican-led states sought to drive down wolf populations through aggressive hunting and trapping ..
Wildlife supporters argued that state-sponsored hunts could quickly reverse gray wolf recovery in large areas of the West, Midwest, and South over the past few decades. They want U.S. District judge Jeffrey White in Oakland to bring wolves back under the Endangered Species Act’s legal protection. This law is intended to protect animals from extinction. Federal officials claim that wolves are resilient enough for them to bounce back despite their declining numbers due to intensive hunting. They claim that protections are no longer necessary.
At stake is the future and survival of a species whose near-extinction recovery has been celebrated as a conservation success story. This recovery has also brought bitter backlash from farmers and hunters angered by wolf attacks on livestock and big game herds. Friday’s hearing was focused on a more complex legal issue: Was the endangered act properly applied to wolves before they lost their protected status last year.
A U.S. Justice Department attorney said they were not, because of changes to the act by Congress in 1978. This means that the wolves in question do not constitute a valid “species” and are not distinct from a smaller group of wolves not included under November’s decision to remove U.S. protections. Fish and Wildlife Service
“Congress was very clear in the statute: If there is not that species, the service does not have the ability to regulate it,” said Michael Eitel with the Justice Department’s natural resources division.
Judge White asked if the government’s approach was a “backdoor” to removing protections.
Eitel replied that the wildlife service was not trying to avoid its obligations to wolf recovery. However, attorneys for the wildlife groups insist it was.
” They cannot take this shortcut,” Kristen Boyles, Earthjustice, representing Defenders of Wildlife as well as other groups, said. “One of the casualties of the Fish and Wildlife Service argument is that we are not here today talking about the key issues of what protections wolves need, where those protections are needed.”
White did not issue an immediate ruling.
The lawsuit does not apply to wolves in six states in the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains where they lost protections a decade back. In September,
Federal officials stated that they would review whether protections should be restored to western states as a result of loosening hunting rules in Idaho (and Montana). It could take up to a year.
In Wisconsin, where hunters surpassed a state harvest quota last winter and killed 218 wolves in just four days, this season’s hunt was recently put on hold by a state judge, two weeks before it was set to begin.
Conservatives on a state wildlife board had set Wisconsin’s kill limit at 300 wolves, prompting a lawsuit from wildlife advocacy groups and a federal lawsuit from a half-dozen Chippewa tribes, which consider the wolf sacred.
A state agency under the control of the Democratic Governor. Tony Evers later took the unprecedented step of unilaterally reducing the kill limit to 130 wolves, openly defying the board.
Wolves once ranged most of the U.S. but were wiped out in most places by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns.
A remnant population in the western Great Lakes region has since expanded to some 4,400 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
More than 2,000 wolves occupy six states in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest after of the animals from Canada were reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park starting in 1995. Over the past decade, protections for wolves in Rockies have been lifted and hunting is permitted.
Wolves are still absent from most of their historical range. Wildlife advocates argue that they need to be protected in order to allow them to continue expanding in California, Colorado and Oregon.
Wyoming allows wolf hunting. Officials are also considering wolf hunting seasons for Minnesota and Michigan.
The defense of Trump’s removal of protections has angered environmentalists, who hoped that the election of the Democrat will shift U.S. policy towards wolves.
Democratic and Republican administrations alike, going back to former President George W. Bush, have sought to remove or scale back federal wolf protections first enacted in 1974.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP