That glass is pretty full: why yesterday's wolf ruling is (mostly) good news

Yellowtone's Crystal Creek wolf pack, 1999 (National Park Service)

Like Matt, I was disappointed to find out yesterday that Federal District Judge Donald Molloy will let wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana continue.  But I think there’s more good news in the decision than bad.  Don’t get me wrong, the idea of potentially hundreds of wolves in the region being shot is tragic.  It’s unsustainable.  And it’s wrong.  But, ultimately, it is one battle in a larger war.  A war that Judge Molloy just told us we had a very good chance of winning.

More precisely, the judge ruled that NRDC, Earthjustice, and our coalition* was “likely to prevail” on the merits of our lawsuit challenging the end of federal wolf protections.  That's lawyer-speak for "I haven't made up my mind yet, but I think you're gonna' win."  If this analysis holds, it means that wolves in Montana and Idaho will soon be back on the endangered species list and enjoy the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Even more importantly, it’s a golden opportunity.  An opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink its whole approach to wolf conservation.  As a lot of us at NRDC have written about before, the basic problem (and, not coincidentally, the reason the federal government keeps losing legal cases) with the Bush and the Obama administrations' approach to wolf conservation is the obsessive focus on a single population in isolation from the whole.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has spent the last several years trying to take Endangered Species Act protections away from Northern Rockies gray wolves by drawing arbitrary political boundaries and declaring wolves recovered within them.  As Judge Molloy put it: “the Service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science.  That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious.” All of these attempts have failed.

What the Service has never done--what it needs to do--is to prepare a national recovery plan for wolves.  Only by first thinking through what would constitute a recovered population of gray wolves in the lower forty-eight, and by basing that decision on the latest science, can we begin to remove protections from particular areas in a rational and reasonable way.  NRDC has petitioned the Service to prepare such a plan.  Yesterday, Judge Molloy gave the Obama Administration a chance to start over. I hope they seize it.


*The conservation groups are represented by Earthjustice. Joining NRDC in the coalition are Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Network, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.