Federal Judge Orders Endangered Species Act Protections Reinstated for Grey Wolves - At Least For Now

Yesterday afternoon, Judge Donald Molloy of the Federal District court for Montana issued a preliminary injunction reinstating Endangered Species Act protections for grey wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. This is very good news for the wolves. Although a preliminary injunction will only protect the wolves until the lawsuit is resolved, a judge will only issue one if it appears likely that the party requesting the lawsuit is going to win at trial.

A friend of mine emailed me a copy of the decision. It's forty pages long, and very little of it is kind to the Fish and Wildlife service. It certainly leaves no doubt whatsoever as to which party the judge believes is likely to ultimately prevail when the trial is concluded. After examining the claims made by each party, Judge Malloy concluded that it appears that the FWS arbitrarily and capriciously reversed several of its own prior conclusions and decisions in order to justify their decision to delist the affected populations.

The timing for this decision really couldn't be better. Without the preliminary injunction, all three states would have been able to go ahead with plans for wolf hunts this fall. Montana and Wyoming hadn't yet published their hunting guidelines and quotas, but had they been anything like the ones proposed in Idaho, the consequences for the species could have been severe. (I can't honestly say that Idaho's guidelines would have decimated their wolf population, but that's only because "decimate" implies that the mortality would only be 10%. They were planning on shooting more than a third of the wolves in the state.) The decision also came on the same day that fish and wildlife officials in Washington state confirmed the presence of at least a small group of wolves in their state for the first time since the 1930s.

The plaintiffs (a group of environmental groups) made argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service should not have delisted the grey wolf populations for several different reasons. Let's take a quick look at at a couple of these reasons, why they're important, and how the court viewed them.

The plaintiffs argued that the wolves should not have been delisted because the government had not yet demonstrated that there was an exchange of genetic material throughout the affected populations. In particular, they noted that a 2007 study commissioned by FWS found that there was no evidence that there was gene flow between the Yellowstone wolf population and any of the other wolf populations in the area. As they pointed out, the 1994 Environmental Impact Statement that was conducted before the wolves were re-introduced specifically mentioned the establishment of a metapopulation as a necessary condition for delisting the wolves. A metapopulation is defined as a set of subpopulations that are exchanging genes with each other, so it's clear that a metapopulation has not yet been established.

This might not be the easiest concept to explain, but it has real implications for the future of these wolf populations. Basically, it comes down to this: if one of the populations of these wolves is genetically isolated from the others, it is almost certainly going to experience a drop in genetic diversity as time goes on. The genetic diversity of a population is one of the things that helps a population respond to sudden changes in its environment - basically, it means that there's at least a chance that some members of the population will be able to resist a new disease, or respond to other forms of change, making it less likely that the whole population will be wiped out by a single problem. Populations that lack genetic diversity are more vulnerable over the long run.

In this case, the populations in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming might be large enough to sustain the losses that would come from delisting on their own, and they are genetically linked to Canadian populations, which means that they can maintain their own genetic diversity. However, until these populations become large and stable enough to forge genetic links with the more isolated Yellowstone area population, the Yellowstone population will remain at increased risk. This means that lifting the protections on the populations outside Yellowstone will increase the risk to the population in inside Yellowstone.

The FWS argument was essentially twofold. First, they argued that the scientific study that they commissioned was flawed because it didn't sample every wolf in Yellowstone, and therefore couldn't demonstrate the absence of a metapopulation. Second, they argued that they didn't need to follow their own original guidelines in order to delist the populations. The judge didn't buy either argument:

The Fish & Wildlife Service's speculation about genetic exchange is not convincing. The VonHoldt Study did not collect DNA samples from every wolf in Yellowstone National Park. This fact, however, does not render the Study, or its findings, useless. There is no question about the adequacy of the Study's sample size or its statistical significance. Nor does the Service contend the testing methods used in the Study were flawed. None of the wolves tested in the Study showed a genetic link to wolves in northwestern Montana or to wolves in central Idaho.

(decision, p. 20)

While the Service is entitled to change its recovery criteria, it must provide a "reasoned analysis" for doing so. See Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n, 463 U.S. at 42 (1983). In this case, the Service has not sufficiently justified or explained its change of course. The obvious shift focuses exclusively on the wolves' success in meeting the recovery criterion of 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves. The genetic diversity requirement for viability is pushed to the back burner of consideration with no explanation of its precipitous drop in importance. The Service instead suggests the 30/300 criterion is the magic tipping point at which the wolves will no longer be endangered. Yet, in 1994, the Service expressly rejected this numerical criterion in favor of recovery criteria that required not only numerical abundance, but also genetic exchange.

The judge ruled that FWS decision to reject the scientific report that it had commissioned, and overturn without explanation its own original set of delisting criteria was arbitrary. To put it another way, the judge told the FWS that it needs to use the scientific information it collects appropriately when it manages populations.

The judge also pointed to several other areas where the federal government failed to act appropriately in this case, including the FWS' decision to accept a management plan from Wyoming that was very, very similar to a management plan that they had previously rejected. The wolves aren't out of danger yet, but at least for the moment they've been spared from the arbitrary acts of this administration through the intervention of the independent judiciary.

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I'm speaking in general and not particularly addressing grey wolves. I think becoming a regulated sport hunting species is a good thing. There are licence or permit fees which should be spent toward your welfare. There are game management people who are concerned about your welfare. There are hunters who want you to do well so they can continue to hunt you. The people who benefit economically from your hunting are also on your side.

On the other hand, as an endangered species, a fair number of folks view you as a costly nuisance and applaud any problems you may have.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 19 Jul 2008 #permalink

This is crap! Let Wyoming take care of Wyoming, Montana take care of Montana, and Idaho will take care of Idaho.
Idiots like Donald Molloy and Mike Dunford, keep your nose out of it. The f------ wolf isn't the only wildlife (or domestic) species at risk here! Do the math, "environmental groups" spend millions on lawsuits while hunters spend millions on conservation and protection of ALL species. Put your big boy pants on accept the fact that man is the dominant predator.

By Jason Grimsley (not verified) on 19 Jul 2008 #permalink

First off it crazy as hell to listen to people that don't even live in Idaho. We don't try to tell them how to live and they shouldn't try to tell us how to live. Maybe we should be introducing some gangs into their nice quaint little suburbs and see how they like it. Sportsmens dollars have helped get the herds where they are today and now all we're doing is raising wolf food. Maybe Defenders and there friends should pay for every elk and deer eaten by wolves as long as the wolf numbers are over the agreed population from when they were introduced. Licsense or not myself and many others I know will have a wolf hunt this fall. We tried to play by your rules, now we play by ours.

I know will have a wolf hunt this fall.

I feel so sorry for you. To take such delight in death and destruction. You're addicted to it. You represent the worst that humanity has to offer, and you'll be the first to turn your bloodlust against your fellows.

By Naked Bunny wi… (not verified) on 19 Jul 2008 #permalink

Hmmm, I see someone is so insecure that all he thinks about and cares about is to make sure he is perceived by others as a "dominant predator". How pathetic!

we are the biggest, baddest, meanest predators to ever walk the earth. and if we all adopted an, ahem, "expedient" frame of mind, we could push the "just another predator" routine right on down to the last little chattering varmint that gets squashed for breathing OUR air.

but we are also capable of being MORE than just another cog, something that was almost certainly a side effect of the process that made us such marvelous killers. and so we can choose to allow another complex social killer the room to what wolves will do. it is because we are not MERELY animals that we can.

no doubt, hunters' money has paid for billions in conservation and wildlife preservation. having grown up in an area where deer hunting is common, i'm not a hunter largely because my father saw too much abuse of it growing up and hunting himself to want to teach us. this is a man who eats live oyster fresh from the shell! hunters should have some say -- at least, as much as any other group of citizens should -- but sound policy will always be based on credible science, not what the cattleman's associations or hunting lobbies pay for.

Mike, you are a frightening person. To think people say wolves are nothing but soulless killers... I think people like you are only seeing a reflection of yourselves.

By the way, cars mow down far more deer and elk than wolves and hunters combined. Human sport hunters who don't even need the meat are second. Wolves, at a distant third, eat only a small amount in comparison. How about you go slash some people's tires before you slash the throat of a wolf that is just trying to get by with his/her family.

Jennifer,Brooks,Naked Bunny with a whip and last but not least Coturnix,
First , were exactly do you live? anywhere close to the mountains of the west by chance? Maybe I'm just trying to get by with my family also, there are still people that hunt and fish for food around here and without elk, deer and fish, berries etc. winters would be very hard.
How much do you actually know about wolves? Did you know that wolves don't always eat what they kill? Did you know that wolves will kill cow elk and does and just eat the fetus and then move on to the next. Did you know that a herd of 18 elk and another of 12 elk just 10 miles from my house were decimated by a pack of 7-9 wolves this winter with not even 50% of the meat eaten. Did you actually read what was written in my post? Did I say anything about killing off all the wolves? I've been for balance all along and in certain areas the wolves need to be managed so we have elk,deer, moose and just about every other animal that still resides around here. Myself and many of my friends are outdoorsmen and spend many hours in the field and we actually see what is happening and what the future may bring if there is not some type of management installed before it's to late. To say that I take such delight in death and destruction? Yes, I've killed many big game animals and everyone of them has ended up on our table, I was raised on it and my kids were raised on it. I respect the animals I hunt and try my very best that there is no suffering or pro-long death. I love to watch them and have for hours enjoying what I see. I've watched calf elk playing tag, bobcats nursing, small bucks and bulls sparring,bears with cubs playing and swimming and have enjoyed every second of it never once thinking that I should probably shoot them. True sportsmen love the game more than you can imagine and thats why we are so concerned with a wolf population that could explode at any time making it to late to rectify the problem. However if your not a sportsmen and think more with your hearts than your mind you'll never get it. Balance is all we ask and for someone that doesn't walk in our shoes everyday to try and tell us what we need to do does not make sense. We've done fine managing our game for years without anyones help and we don't need it now.

Mike, it sounds like your only concern is making sure there's plenty of game for you to hunt. There is zero need for you to hunt to feed your family. I live in rural Kentucky, one of the poorest regions in the country, and hunting is not necessary even for the folks living far out in the hills.

You ask for balance, but want to hunt wolves to your heart's content. You speak of maintaining a tradition (hunting game for food) that serves no purpose in modern life. You speak of hunting without a license because the lawsuit isn't going your way. You speak of how you'd like to send "some gangs into their nice quaint little suburbs" to make things worse for people who disagree with you.

You sir are not concerned with balance. You are concerned only with yourself, and to hell with everyone (and everything) else.

Bluegrass Geek,
I would really not like to take the time to hunt wolves and wouldn't even consider it if their numbers were in check. I enjoy seeing other wildlife besides a dog that was dumped in idaho without even asking what we thought about it. Sounds like maybe Kentucky could use some wolves, we've got plenty, you can have all you want. How can you say hunting serves no purpose in modern life, how do you think deer herds and other game animals are at their current levels, through sportsmens dollars perhaps? Are you by chance anti-hunting and anti-second amendment?
It amazes me as to how things can be written or said with one thing in mind and through the eyes of different people and their views taken different ways. Mr. Geek I figured you for a complete ass but since I play the 5-string and enjoy bluegrass I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. I also have relation in Kentucky and yes they hunt and yes they enjoy it and the meat they Get from it. The usda has yet to recall 20 million lbs. of venison because its contaminated. You may want to look into some information about hunters for the homeless and hunters for the hungry and tell me then that their is no good being served from hunting.


I am not a biologist by profession, but I do know several times more about wolves and other predators than your average joe. For instance, I know that the 'wasted' carcasses wolves leave feed a host of other organisms besides them (lynxes, bears, gray jays, ravens, golden eagles, foxes, coyotes, wolverines); and that elk in many places in the west (like the white-tails in the east) have drastically altered their habitat in the days since federal predator control programs. A healthy wolf population means a healthy variety of animal and plant life. But I'm sure you're aware of all this already, so enough of the zoology lesson.

We as a nation would not be able to hunt at all today if some uppity 20th century scientists hadn't decided, Hey! If we ever want to eat deer again, ever, we'd better find a way to hunt AND keep a decent population size! Sometime in the following decades, other scientists added, Hey! It'd be great if we didn't have hooved locusts eating us out of house, home, and forest, wouldn't it? Maybe we KEEP some predators?

I'm not saying no one should hunt; I'm sure it's a damn sight better for you than the beef you buy at Wal-Mart! And I'm not even saying there shouldn't, eventually, be some ENLIGHTENED wolf control. I've lived in the West, so I know there's going to be some give and take. But the actual scientists here are saying that shooting the wolves back to Federal minimums before we know anything about their population health as a whole is, well, unhealthy. And like it or not, we DO have Wal-Mart; because if everyone shot all the game they preferred to, there'd be little left for next season.

So yeah, between the guys who say "I know better because X" and/or "We've ALWAYS done it this way," and the scientists who actually dedicate their adult lives to collecting and crunching data and comparing it with others who are doing the same, well -- call me crazy -- but I'll go with the eggheads.

Have you ever tried the meat at wal-mart? yuk! I'm far from being anti-predator and I realize they all have there place, even the wolves. I don't agree with the federal minimums either, it seems to always be one way or the other and I guess that's why there are extremists on both sides of the fence. I've seen elk and deer being killed and drug off by cougars and bears and I understand, that's nature. However those two species are managed and we have some control over their populations.Besides I can honestly say I've never seen sport kills by either bears or cats. Wolves on the otherhand do kill for sport and yes I know that other creatures benefit from the carrion left behind but those same creatures seemed to do alright before the wolves. As far as shooting as much game as we want? Thats why restrictions are in place as to how many tags you can fill. I know many families that may have two or three elk tags a year and as soon as one tag is filled or they feel they have enough meat for the freezer they'll stop hunting. For instance two years ago my 13 year old son drew a once in a lifetime bull moose tag and he was able to tag his moose, after butchering I told him it looked like we didn't even need to go elk hunting as we had plenty in the freezer, at first being 13 he was upset that he couldn't hunt, however I think now he understands. I guess my biggest fear and those like myself that treasure the sport so much is the fear that if the wolves keep going like they have they'll deplete our herds to the point that even seeing an elk or deer is a thing of the past.


First, thanks for sticking around to discuss the issue.

Second, as far as your fear that the wolves will deplete the elk and deer to the point where they put you out of business (so to speak) goes, I don't think you need to worry too much. There are a number of other factors besides food that will put pressure on the wolves, and keep their population from expanding so much that deer and elk become endangered instead. The scientific study of the Yellowstone Wolf population that I just read (and will try to write a post about later) notes that the wolf population within the Greater Yellowstone area seems to have hit its maximum at about 175 animals.

In a case like this, we're not concerned about what the individual states want to do with the animals that live within their borders because we don't think that people in Idaho know what they're doing. It's because wolves (and other animals) don't use the same borders and boundaries that we do. This means that what happens in Idaho is going to have an effect on what happens in the surrounding states.

There may be so many wolves in Idaho that there would still be a good-sized population in Idaho even with the proposed hunting quotas. Right now, though (and I'll be getting into more detail on this later), it looks like a reduction in the Idaho population will have bad effects for the population in the Yellowstone park area.

I'm kind of having a hard time with what you say. How can a wolf reduction in North Idaho have an impact on wolves in yellowstone? If Colorado,Utah,Oregon and Washington want wolves then instead of letting them over populate in one state to the point that they move across the border. Why not trap some and move them into those areas like they did in central Idaho, I realize that wolves move great distances in short periods of time but at what cost to residant wild game populations? I've read many times and it may be biased as everthing usually is that the elk herds in Yellowstone have really taken a beating from the wolves and that may be a factor in Yellowstone reaching it's potential for wolves. Eventually when predator numbers are so high prey has to decline to the point that the predator will decline also, it a vicious cycle that doesn't have to be repeated with the right management tools in place. I know there are a few out there that think with predators at their maxamum levels there will be no need for management through hunting and before the whiteman they might of worked but now there is only so much available habitat for all species so man has to intervene at some point to make things balance out. Sorry about spelling it's been a long day and getting late. ltr M


No worries on the long day. It's been long here, too.

From the little I've been able to read so far, the issues surrounding the decline in the elk herds in Yellowstone are fairly complex. There are several different contributing factors that are in play, and it doesn't look like anyone's really sure which is the most important. Climate factors (drought and the 1997 winter) both took a toll. The increase in the wolf population has certainly been a factor, but bears also kill elk (particularly calves) and the bear population has gone up quite a bit over the last twenty years. Finally, Montana has increased the hunting quota a couple of times over the last few years. The key thing, though, is that the elk population seems to have been fairly stable over the last couple of years.

If the wolves and elk are limiting each others' populations, it'll probably start to show more clearly over the next few years.

Your other question (the one about why the Idaho population is so important for Yellowstone) is a bit harder to address. I'm going to try to write a separate post that will make the issue a bit clearer (hopefully, anyway). The short version is that that there's a long-term, but very real, threat to the Yellowstone population that will only go away if that population is connected to other ones.

@Mike (not Mike Dunford)

"We tried to play by your rules, now we play by ours."

All Mr. Dunford seems to be saying is that in fact, Fish and Wildlife didn't play by its own rules.

It always amazes me how sometimes, not always, certain people who get their knowledge from various books can always attain the knowledge on all subjects and therefore always seem to know more than the people that live and see that particular life everyday. It kind of reminds me of when I was a coal miner for ten years and silver miner for 2 years after being in college, could not beat the money so I went underground. We had a select few engineers that were book smart and could probably remember every word that they had read, but when it came down to actual underground experience and the way different types of ground react to different situations they were clueless. The older engineers at that time would actually ask us miners what we thought in certain situations, the younger ones, not all, but some tryed to tell us what we should think and do in those same situations. Most of the time in life threating issues we would tell them to go to hell and get to see the sun for another day where as had we listened and done what we knew from experience was wrong would not be here today. I think maybe some of the scientists and biologists should listen to some of the reasonable outdoorsmen, ranchers, wildlife watchers etc. and not the extremeists of either side before they make decisions on things that could take years to overcome.