Ninth Circuit revives suit to save gray wolves in Idaho, Northern Rockies

(CN) – Environmental groups have standing to sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture for neglecting to study the impact of killing gray wolves in mountainous portions of Idaho and whether the slaughter affects elk populations, the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday.

The ruling gives plaintiffs Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Clearwater, WildEarth Guardians and Predator Defense the go-ahead to move forward in their legal battle to protect a subspecies of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. The lawsuit had been dismissed by an Idaho federal judge.

Gray wolf management in Idaho includes foothold traps, wire snares meant to strangle wolves, and hunters gunning down the canines from helicopters. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game relies on assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the wolf-killing program. Between 2006 and 2015, some 636 wolves were killed in Idaho, including 21 wolves killed in the Lolo elk zone.

The Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf’s Endangered Species Act protection was removed sometime in 2011 for all of Montana and Idaho, along with portions of Washington and Oregon.

In June 2016, the environmental groups sued the federal government for assisting Idaho without updating its analysis on the impact of killing wolves. The data the state agency relied on was more than a decade old at the time the lawsuit was filed.

The Idaho federal judge found the groups lacked standing to sue the federal government for its role in the management program.

But in a 15-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, sitting by designation from the District of Minnesota, wrote the environmental advocates interests’ fall under the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act and its protections and established injury-in-fact.

One environmentalist described in a declaration submitted to the court how the wolf-killing program threatens the aesthetic and recreational interests in tracking and observing wolves in the wild, like in the Northern Rockies.

“On one occasion, he personally witnessed Wildlife Services shooting an entire wolf pack during an aerial killing operation,” Tunheim, a Bill Clinton appointee, wrote for the panel. “He and other members also describe their interests in enjoying the wildlife and ecosystems of Idaho, which may be threatened by the ripple effects of wolf mortality or changes in behavior caused by wolf killings.”

While the trial court judge ruled the environmental groups couldn’t not show fewer wolves would be killed if the federal involvement was stopped to conduct analysis, Tunheim found the judge improperly relied on an unpublished opinion in an Oregon case about cougars for precedent.

Instead, the judge should have found the groups’ concerns with the aesthetic and recreational interests in the wolves being alive was sufficient for standing.

“If Wildlife Services were to cease its activities – even temporarily – it is possible that fewer wolves would be killed, particularly in the short term,” Tunheim wrote. “Wildlife Services itself has stated that, without its assistance, ‘implementation of both lethal and nonlethal [wolf management] methods by other entities would likely not be as effective.’ Likewise, additional NEPA analysis could change Wildlife Services’ activities in the long term. Among other possibilities, Wildlife Services could decide, in its discretion, to kill fewer wolves or to use only non-lethal means of wolf management moving forward. Any of these outcomes would protect plaintiffs’ interests.”

It’s unclear if Idaho would be able to continue a wolf management program without federal assistance. The state notified the federal government in a letter that it would be willing to continue the program, but didn’t say whether this would be to protect livestock or domestic animals and there was no clear plan on how they would make up for the loss in federal funding.

“Indeed, the fact that Wildlife Services has carried out nearly all lethal wolf management in Idaho since 2011, partially through highly technical operations such as aerial hunting, suggests that Idaho Department of Fish and Game may lack the expertise and resources to carry out those operations itself,” Tunheim wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judges Susan Graber and Marsha Berzon – also Bill Clinton appointees – rounded out the panel.

Western Watersheds Project attorney Talasi Brooks said now the environmental groups will finally be able to make their argument in court, about three years after filing the lawsuit.

“With the new decision, we can return to the heart of the matter: whether or not Wildlife Services adequately reviewed the ecological consequences of killing scores of wolves each year in Idaho,” said Brooks. “This lawsuit is all about dispelling the myths and propaganda about the ‘big, bad wolf’ and getting federal agencies to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence that killing wolves to reduce livestock losses or increase populations of hunted wildlife is cruel, pointless, and doesn’t work.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture declined to comment on pending litigation.