Cattle spokesman welcomes ruling amid increasing livestock depredation
By MATTHEW BROWN
An official for an Idaho livestock organization said he was pleased to learn that a federal judge ruled this week that gray wolf hunts can continue in the Northern Rockies.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy denied a request by environmental and animal welfare groups to stop the hunts in Idaho and Montana, saying plans to kill more than 20 percent of the estimated 1,350 wolves in the two states would not cause long-term harm to the species.
"That is a very pleasant surprise to us," Tom McDonnell, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, told the Capital Press.
Livestock depredations from wolves are increasing along with the wolf population, and the Idaho Cattle Association supports management of the species, McDonnell said.
"August was a bloody month" for livestock depredations, he said.
Wildlife Services confirmed wolves killed three cows, seven calves, 96 sheep and three guard dogs in Idaho. The agency also determined wolves were probably responsible for the deaths of an additional four calves and 70 sheep. In mid-August, wolves killed nearly 150 rams in two separate attacks in the same pasture near Dillon, Mont.
"There were dead sheep everywhere," McDonnell said. "Those rams are worth $350 to $500 apiece. That's a big economic hit for those ranchers."
McDonnell said the wolf hunts are not the "cure-all" for growing livestock depredations. He also noted that wolves are hard to hunt.
"We're still very dependent on Wildlife Services going out and resolving depredations," he said.
In his ruling issued late Tuesday, Sept. 8, Molloy wrote that the wolf population could sustain a hunting harvest in excess of 30 percent and still bounce back.
The ruling left unresolved the broader question of whether wolves should be returned to the endangered list.
Molloy said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to have violated the Endangered Species Act when it carved Wyoming out of its decision to lift protections in May for wolves elsewhere in the region.
That suggests environmental groups could prevail in their ongoing lawsuit seeking to restore protections for the predator.
"The service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science. That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious," Molloy wrote in his 14-page ruling.
Representatives of the Fish and Wildlife Service referred questions to the Department of Interior, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Attorney Doug Honnold, who argued the case on behalf of groups opposed to the hunts, offered a mixed reaction to the ruling. "If they violated the Endangered Species Act, then this population eventually is going have to go back on the (endangered) list," he said.
He also said he was disappointed that the injunction request was denied and "took no comfort" in Molloy's statement that the population could withstand a hunt. A decision on whether to appeal Molloy's ruling would be made within the next few days, he said.
Hunters in Idaho have so far reported the taking of three wolves since hunting opened there on Sept. 1. The state has a quota allowing as many as 220 wolves to be killed.
Montana's season is set to begin Sept. 15, with a quota of 75 wolves.
Wolves once roamed North America, but by the 1930s they had been largely exterminated outside Alaska and Canada. About 1,650 animals now live in the Northern Rockies -- the result of a contentious $30 million reintroduction program that began in 1995.
The population is now five times the original recovery goal set in the 1990s.
Hunt opponents say those gains could quickly be reversed in the absence of federal protections. But as wolf numbers have grown, so have attacks on domestic livestock, ratcheting up the pressure to keep the population in check.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Tom Palmer said his agency will proceed with the hunt in that state and "show everyone that Montana can manage wolves just like it has managed other wildlife."
Jim Unsworth, with Idaho Fish and Game, said the hunt has gone smoothly. "Everything is working just like we planned, which shouldn't be a surprise since we've done this for years with other critters," he said.
Molloy sided with environmental groups in a similar case that arose last year, after the federal government first attempted to lift protection for the animals. In that case, the environmental groups successfully argued that a Wyoming law allowing wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state would put the population in peril again.
Capital Press staff writer Carol Ryan Dumas contributed to this report.