Whether an interested public shows up or not, a May 29 hearing to temporarily halt harvesting of wolves should easily fill the Missoula courtroom of U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy—probably with lawyers alone.
The lawsuit, filed April 28 by a coalition of 11 conservation groups, seeks to invalidate a March 28 decision by U.S. Fish and Wildlife director H. Dale Hall to strip the gray wolf of Endangered Species Act protections. According to federal estimates, wolves in the Northern Rockies now number between 1,500 and 1,600. Environmentalists, however, say state officials and ranchers have killed at least 68 wolves since delisting, half of those in Montana.
“We really don’t even know how many have been killed illegally,” adds Suzanne Stone of the Defenders of Wildlife, one plaintiff in the case.
The lawsuit originally named four defendants, but since May 2, 18 state governments, state agencies and an array of non-profit policy groups have jumped on the bandwagon in support of delisting. Among the parties are Montana and Wyoming cattlemen associations and a handful of big-game hunting groups, including Friends of the Yellowstone Elk Herd, Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association. All maintain that wolf populations have adequately rebounded, to the point where canis lupus is becoming a nuisance to ranchers and hunters.
Molloy allowed the pro-delisting ranks to swell providing that the defendants did not seek to delay the proceedings. Like many that involve federal environmental legislation, the case is expected to wind on for quite some time. The May 29 hearing will specifically address the question of whether to protect the wolf in the meantime. Deliberation will likely focus on the issue of whether or not post-delisting kill rates will trigger a population decline.
Montana State ecologist James Knight, an expert for the defense, thinks not. He argues in a court declaration that natural population growth will outpace harvesting and that state management poses “no threat to population levels…for the duration of the current litigation process.”
That’s not true in the face of recent developments, counters Stone. “Idaho just came up with a revised hunting plan that will allow hunters to kill 428 wolves this year,” she says. “That’s just Idaho.”