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Agency Was Right to Pick Hunters Over Wolves

(CN) - The National Park Service did not violate federal law when it dismissed a plan to release a pack of sterile gray wolves in Rocky Mountain National Park to help thin a burgeoning and destructive elk population, a federal judge ruled.

In the absence of natural predators, elk herds in the Colorado park have swelled, leading to overgrazing of the land and increased risk of disease. Park officials have explored ways to control the population over the past several years, ultimately deciding to allow authorized hunters to cull the herd. The hunters could include members of the public with firearms training who would kill the elk under Park Service supervision, according to an order signed March 23 by U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger.

New Mexico-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians objected, arguing that the Park Service had failed to properly consider a plan to thin the herd by releasing sterile gray wolves, the elk's historic natural predator in the region.

Judge Krieger disagreed, finding that the Park Service had complied with the National Environmental Policy Act's (NEPA) mandate to take a "hard look" at the plan when it convened a workshop in 2005 to discuss its efficacy.

According to the Park Service's final environmental impact statement on the plan, as quoted in Krieger's ruling, a panel of experts found that releasing a wolf pack in the park could potentially cause more problems than it solved.

"The National Park Service considered the concerns by neighbors of perceived and real threats; the degree of expected conflict with livestock and domestic pets; the limited suitable habitat available for wolves outside the park; and the intensive management that would likely be required to respond to external issues," according to the statement. "As a result of these deliberations, this alternative was eliminated from further consideration."

Krieger ruled that the workshop sufficed to meet the Park Service's requirement to consider the plan.

"NEPA simply requires the Park Service to evaluate the relevant data (which may be conflicting) and to rationally connect its decision to the data," she wrote. "The Park Service did just that." (Parentheses in original.)

Krieger also rejected the group's argument that the culling plan violated the National Park Service's ban on hunting within park boundaries.

"Other than pointing to the broad prohibition against 'hunting' or 'killing,' which it concedes has an exception, WildEarth offers little to show why the Park Service's interpretation is unreasonable," she wrote. "WildEarth has not directed the court to anything in either the language of the acts or their legislative history that suggests the Park Service's line-drawing between the prohibition and its exception is unreasonable or impermissible."


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