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Judge In Oregon Overturns FWS

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Feb 13, 2005
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Judge In Oregon Overturns FWS
Program To De-List Some Wolves

By David Bowser

A federal judge in Oregon this month overturned the government's reclassification of wolves under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental activists claim the ruling will lead to wolves in much broader areas.

The executive director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association says the ruling applies only to one region for the moment but admits it could spell trouble in future litigation.

"This is a federal district judge in Oregon," says Jim Magagna with the Wyoming Stock Growers. "It would be for Oregon at this time, but it has broader implications."

"There is no middle ground between wolf advocates and livestock producers," says Sharon Livingston, president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association. "Wolves are going to eat our cattle, and we don't want that."

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones last week vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's national wolf reclassification rule.

If appealed, Jones' ruling would be heard by the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco, a court considered to be much more liberal than the other circuits in the nation.

The Ninth Circuit which covers Montana, Idaho and Utah, not Wyoming.

"We're in the 10th Circuit," Jim Magagna says.

Normally, a decision in one federal judicial district is not binding on other districts, and precedents are set in the appellate courts, not the district or trial court. "There is no immediate implication for Wyoming, but it does have implications for eventually delisting the wolves in the entire area," Magagna says. "This could set the process back again."

"There are 40,000 to 60,000 wolves on the North American continent," Livingston says. "They are not extinct. What they brought back to the United States, at least in Oregon, is not native. When something is not native, I think it's wrong to introduce it to an area."

The reintroduction of wolves in the northern Rockies, Yellowstone and the Southwest has always been a controversial issue.

While the population of wolves appears to be growing in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, there is a question about wolves in Oregon.

"They don't really have any," Magagna says. "They've had one or two go into Oregon from Idaho, but these environmental groups filed in Oregon because they found a judge they liked, basically."

Only three wolves have been confirmed in Oregon, Livingston confirms. One was captured about 12 miles from Livingston's home and returned to Idaho.

"It was collared," Livingston said.

Livingston lives about 90 miles south of Pendleton.

One wolf was killed on a highway near Baker, Ore., and another was killed on the highway near Ukiah, Ore.

"We hear about a lot of wolves, but we don't know," Livingston says.

She suspects most of the sightings are of hybrids.

Though few wolves have been reported in Oregon, Livingston says they're coming.

"But they were wolf hybrids," she says. "In Oregon, right now, as far as I'm concerned, they're wolf hybrids."

Hybrids are fair game. Wolves are protected. Unfortunately, it can take a DNA test in some instances to tell the difference.

At issue in the case before Judge Jones was not genetics, but historic range. The government argued that as long as a stable population of wolves existed in one region, the animals could be delisted in that region.

"About a year and a half ago," Magagna explains, "the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took two steps. They divided the wolves in the United States into three what they called "Distinct Population Segments," or DPS.

One was the eastern gray wolf in Minnesota and Michigan. The other was the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest. Then there is the northern gray wolf, which includes Oregon, Idaho and Montana, except for the wolves that had been reintroduced to Idaho and the Yellowstone area.

"The second step the Fish and Wildlife Service took was to downlist the wolves in the western DPS from 'endangered' to 'threatened,' which would be a step forward toward delisting," Magagna says.

"Now, the downlisting didn't apply to the wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, for the most part, or southern Montana that had been reintroduced in the Yellowstone area. They're what's called a 'non-essential experimental' population. Though they're still part of this western DPS, it didn't change their status."

But in northern Montana, Oregon, Utah and any other place where there were wolves, Magagna says, they were listed as just threatened instead of endangered.

"The environmentalists went to court and said that under the Endangered Species Act, they way they read it, the Fish and Wildlife Service could not downlist the wolves until they were recovered in the whole historic range, which included the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies," Magagna says. "They've got this judge now to agree with them."

Under the April 2003 reclassification, a step toward delisting the gray wolf as an endangered species, ranchers in certain regions could shoot wolves chasing livestock. Prior to that, wolves could only be shot if they were caught actually attacking livestock, and the level of proof was much higher.

Jones rescinded that rule, arguing that the federal government had violated the Endangered Species Act when it relaxed the rules on the wolf.

Ed Bangs, the national wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, says that only wolves in Montana were affected.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has approved state wolf conservation plans in Montana and Idaho, but has yet to approve a state plan in Wyoming.

Wyoming is suing U.S. Fish and Wildlife for failure to approve the Cowboy State's wolf management plan.

"Under the experimental plan, before they could start to take them off the list, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming had to have approved plans," Magagna says. "Montana's and Idaho's were approved. They rejected Wyoming's."

The State of Wyoming and some 26 livestock and agricultural organizations in Wyoming filed suit against the federal government for their failure to accept Wyoming's plan.

The oral arguments in federal district court were last week in Cheyenne.

"A decision could be two months down the road," Magagna says. "It could be five months down the road."

Litigation is expensive. Livingston says her organization held a series of fundraising events to come up with money for the Oregon lawsuit.

"We made $7500 on one," Livingston says. "We've done everything to raise the money. Now, I don't know where we go from here. It looks really bad."

To make matters worse, an Oregon task force split on its view of wolves in the state.

A 14-member task force spent 10 months hammering out a position on wolves. In the end, 12 of the 14 members signed the report. Two members, one from the livestock industry and one representing county commissions in the state, wrote their own minority report.

That report will be reviewed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife this week in a meeting in Troutdale, a suburb of Portland. At that meeting the state agency will consider adopting a wolf conservation and management plan.

"They will be looking at that plan and deciding whether to adopt it," Livingston says.

Environmental activists say Jones' decision means wolves in the Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program in New Mexico and Arizona will have to be treated differently. That Distinct Population Segment extends from Mexico to Interstate 70 across Northern Colorado.

Under the terms of a 1998 reintroduction program in the Southwest, wolves are banned outside their recovery area in Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico.

Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity claims that the new ruling opens the door for wolves in the Chiricahua and Pineleno Mountains of Arizona and the Peloncillo and Hatchet Mountains of New Mexico. He says wolves should also be introduced into the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado, the Flat Tops Wilderness of Northern Colorado, the Colorado Plateau and Grand Canyon region of Utah and Northern Arizona, the Siskiyou and Klamath Mountains of Southern Oregon and Northern California, and the Adirondacks of upstate New York.

The Oregon lawsuit was filed by a coalition of 19 radical environmental groups.

Wyoming, Idaho, the Safari Club and the Oregon Cattlemen's Association joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to defend the government's actions.

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