California Ranchers Fight Gray Wolf Protections

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A week after President Donald Trump signed an executive order rolling back environmental protections, the California Farm Bureau and ranchers sued the state, challenging its listing of the gray wolf as endangered.

The California Cattlemen’s Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation claim in Superior Court that the California Fish and Game Commission exceeded its authority by protecting the species.

The administrative record shows that the gray wolf is not native to California, making it ineligible for listing, the groups say in their Tuesday lawsuit. They say the commission’s listing was based on inadequate analysis of the sporadic presence of only a few animals in California.

They claim that giving the gray wolf substantial protections not easily contravened, the commission overturned a years-long, collaboratively developed wolf management plan that protects livestock from wolf predation, and threatened the safety and livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Damien Schiff with the Pacific Legal Foundation insists that the lawsuit is not anti-wolf.

“The commission’s wolf listing doesn’t materially improve the wolf’s protections in this state, but it does materially hamper the ability of private property owners to adequately protect themselves, their pets, and their livestock,” Schiff said in an email. “Thus, our lawsuit is about getting the commission back on the right track to employing a sound and balanced wolf management strategy.”

Gray wolves, also called timber wolves, are among the largest canines. Ranging in color from mottled gray and brown to black or all white, they can measure 5 feet long and 60 to 100 lbs. for females and 6½ feet long and 70 to 145 lbs. for males. They typically eat large hoofed animals such as deer and elk, but also feed on small animals and carrion.

Once abundant nationwide, gray wolves were nearly exterminated from the Lower 48 states because hunters killed them for preying on livestock. By 1920, the entire gray wolf population in California was gone.

In at least one aspect, the lawsuit is an extension of the long-running political fight between states’ rights groups and the federal government. The wolf seen in Northern California that set off this fight, known as OR-7, is believed to be a descendant of wolves the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced to Idaho. They spread into Oregon and kept spreading.

At issue behind the complaint, but not directly addressed by it, is the question: If the federal government declares that a species is in danger of extinction and needs protection, to what extent, if any, do the states have the right to refuse?

Thanks to conservation efforts, wolf populations in the United States are slowly making a comeback. There are around 6,000 to 11,200 wolves in Alaska, 3,700 in the Great Lakes Region, 1,675 in the Northern Rockies, and several hundred in Oregon, Wisconsin, and Idaho. Wildlife officials in California estimate they will be able to reintroduce a functional wolf population by 2024.

After a gray wolf from Oregon was seen in California in late 2011, environmental groups petitioned the Department of Fish and Wildlife to list the species as endangered under the state’s Endangered Species Act, in March 2012. In August that year, the department “determined that the petition may be warranted,” according to the complaint, and in October that year it listed the gray wolf as a candidate species.

In February 2014, however, the department declined to list the species, finding that “the gray wolf is not currently facing or enduring any threat in California at this time.”

The law, however, required the Fish and Game Commission to produce a full status review within 12 months of the candidate species determination, and in June 2104 it voted 3 to 1 to proceed with listing is as an endangered species.

The Office of Administrative Law approved the proposed regulation in October 2016, and it took effect on Jan. 1 this year.

Since the commission’s decision to pursue protections, a breeding pair with pups was spotted near the California-Oregon border, and another pair traveled to Lassen County.

Nonetheless, the associations claim the listing was illegal because the gray wolf is a nonnative species that does not have an active range in California. They also say the commission improperly restricted its analysis to the species’ presence in California, without of considering out-of-state populations.

“Because the commission’s listing of the gray wolf is based on legally insufficient evidence,  the listing is an excess of the commission’s jurisdiction,” the complaint states.

The commission did not return emailed requests for comment Thursday morning.

The associations seek writ of mandate directing the commission to rescind its decision to list the gray wolf, and a declaration that the listing is illegal and void.

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