PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — The federal government should have done more to protect Oregon’s gray wolves, no matter what farmers and ranchers say, attorneys for five environmental groups told the Ninth Circuit on Wednesday.
Nearly extirpated native and reintroduced wolves are a contentious issue among conservationists, ranchers, farmers and livestock lobbyists in the West.
Oregon’s native gray wolves had been exterminated for more than 60 years before some began migrating from Idaho in 2009. Today there are believed to be around 120 wolves in the state.
In 2015, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission removed endangered species protections from gray wolves, a decision that was hotly contested by conservation groups in the state.
While the recovery efforts for the gray wolf have been touted as a success, the battles continue. Environmental groups believe state and federal governments haven’t done enough, while ranchers and their lobbyists want more freedom to kill wolves that prey on livestock.
Numerous lawsuits on wolf management have been filed against federal and state agencies in recent years, in Oregon, California, Idaho and New Mexico as far east as Minnesota and Michigan.
In the case at issue Wednesday, Cascadia Wildlands et al. claimed in 2016 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services’ wolf-killing program violated the National Environmental Policy Act by, among other things, failing to prepare an environmental impact statement — not just an “assessment.”
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane rejected the claim in April 2017, finding that Wildlife Services did not take part in any “major federal action” in Oregon, and did take the “hard look” required in its assessment.
Cascadia Wildands appealed, with co-plaintiff-appellants Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, Predator Defense and Project Coyote.
On Wednesday, attorney John Mellgren with the Western Environmental Law Center, told the three-judge panel that the wolf-killing program was indeed “a major federal action,” and required an environmental impact statement.
Ninth Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, appearing by video from her Pasadena chambers, interrupted Mellgren to ask about funding, which she called a “critical component” of the case.
Mellgren responded: “It’s simply unreasonable to assume that there’s unlimited funding with the state of Oregon to pay Wildlife Services.”
Wardlaw asked if there was evidence of the percentage the state contributes, and what sorts of resources are required to track and kill wolves.
Mellgren said there is no financial information in the record from years when the state killed wolves. But he noted that there is “easily accessible data” from other states, such as Idaho, where government officials and recreational hunters kill wolves. And that data, he argued, was critical to analyzing environmental effects.
Mellgren added: “It is completely reasonable for the public to ask an agency to conduct an environmental analysis that crosses state lines, especially since, as Wildlife Services admits, Oregon’s wolf population depends on migrants from other states.”
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Martin said that Wildlife Services made rational findings, and was not required to prepare an environmental impact statement.
He said that at the end of 2017, there were 124 wolves in Oregon, including 11 breeding pairs, which he called encouraging figures.
“The state made clear it was going to remove wolves with or without Wildlife Services,” Martin said, adding that the federal government has not done so in Oregon since 2014.
“The primary limiting factor for whether wolves survive in Oregon is human tolerance,” Martin said. “If wolves are going to make it here, the most important factor is whether people can accept that they have a means of redress if their economic interests are being impaired by wolf conservation.”
Martin said that Idaho has a “surplus” of wolves, while it also has a “robust” management program that involves killing them. In Oregon, he said, the involvement of the federal government is limited, and would not affect the state’s overall population.
In closing, Martin asked the panel if they had any questions or needed clarification. No judge on the panel asked much of either attorney.
Also on the panel were Ninth Circuit Judge John B. Owens and Senior Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow from the Northern District of Illinois, sitting by designation.
In May 2017 Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Commission held a public hearing about its wolf plan, which drew dozens of impassioned speakers on both sides of the issue.
“I’m an apex predator because I have a gun,” a commenter who identified himself as Mr. Rupert told the panel. “That sounds harsh, but that’s what we see happening without intense regulations.”