(CN) – Wyoming can once again take the lead in managing wolves, after an appeals court unanimously overturned a federal court ruling that reinstated Endangered Species Act protections in the Cowboy State.
In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lifted federal protection of gray wolves. Two years later, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson vacated the rule, finding it “arbitrary and capricious” for the federal agency to rely on Wyoming’s “nonbinding promises to maintain a particular number of wolves when the availability of that specific numerical buffer was such a critical aspect of the delisting decision.”
Instead, Jackson wanted the population commitments in Wyoming’s wolf management plan to be made through regulation or statute.
But in a 3-0 decision by the D.C. Circuit on Friday, the judges concluded that Fish and Wildlife didn’t act arbitrarily when determining that Wyoming’s wolf management plan was sufficient to maintain a recovered wolf population.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead applauded the ruling.
“The court recognized Wyoming’s wolf management plan was appropriate,” Mead said in a statement. “We look forward to state management once the 2012 delisting rule is formally reinstated. I thank everyone who has worked so hard for the recovery and delisting of wolves. This is the right decision for wolves and Wyoming.”
Opponents of removing Endangered Species Act protections of Wyoming’s wolves said they fear the state’s plan allows for the unlimited slaughter of wolves in a “predator zone” that covers most of the state.
“Wyoming’s plan to shoot wolves on sight throughout most of the state was a bad idea when it was proposed, and it’s a bad idea now,” said Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit. “The court’s decision to lift federal protections for wolves in Wyoming will be a step backward for wolf recovery in the West.”
Wolves were extirpated in most of the lower 48 states where they once roamed, but were reintroduced in the greater Yellowstone area in the mid-1990s. As of December 2015, their numbers now total an estimated 1,700 in 282 packs in Wyoming as well as Montana and Idaho, where they’re under state management. An estimated 200 wolves in 34 packs reside in eastern Oregon and Washington.
Today, Wyoming is home to at least 382 wolves in 48 packs, according to Fish and Wildlife. State officials pledge to maintain a minimum of 100 wolves in 10 packs.
Natural Resources Defense Council spokeswoman Margie Kelly said the group is considering whether to appeal this decision and that their attorneys are looking the ruling over before deciding how to move forward.