The ongoing courtroom saga of the gray wolf took a rather unexpected turn two weeks ago with the announcement of a settlement between the federal government and 10 of the 14 conservation groups who sued to have the animals relisted under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. The agreement created a divide between those 10 groups and their non-settling peers, raising questions as to why—after years of tense litigation—some environmentalists sought compromise.
"It's certainly something that required a lot of care and thought on our part, and is a result of a long series of conversations we had both internally with our partners and of course with the Department of the Interior," says Andrew Wetzler, land and wildlife director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "If we didn't act and act quickly, wolves would very likely have ended up in a much worse place."
It's no coincidence the settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) came as Congress considers legislation to delist wolves. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester introduced a delisting bill for populations in Montana and Idaho; Rep. Denny Rehberg proposes removing ESA protections for wolves nationwide.
Fearing the passage of such a bill would create a Pandora's box not just for wolves but for other endangered species, settling groups moved to preempt that worst-case scenario.
"Hopefully this will avoid very bad precedent of politically removing species from the list," says Michael Leahy of Defenders of Wildlife. "Now there's a lot less incentive for members of Congress from around the country to even think about removing wolves from the Endangered Species Act through legislation."
But the agreement didn't stem solely from the current political climate. Conservation groups claim that settlement negotiations have been ongoing since before U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy's August 2010 ruling to restore ESA protections for wolves, and that they've been holding out for adequate protections from both state and federal agencies. While the settlement would restore state management plans in Montana and Idaho through March 2016, it would also give the FWS a supervisory role over wolf monitoring—a critical stipulation that helps address concerns about giving states full control.
"The settlement gives states a test drive for state management," Wetzler says. "A test drive is what's appropriate now, as opposed to just handing over the keys to the car and walking away."
The settlement also emphasizes independent monitoring and scientific assessment and requires FWS to publish an annual evaluation of the delisted populations. Plaintiffs established a number of "escape hatches," Leahy says, measures that either allow the groups to bow out of the agreement or prohibit courts from using the settlement as a precedent. The settlement maintains ESA protections for wolves in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah.
"We'd prefer to see a higher level of tolerance in the Rockies, and I'm hoping over time this agreement will give us a framework through which lots of people can step back from the controversy, try this out for five years and see if it works," says Greater Yellowstone Coalition Director Mike Clark. "If it doesn't work, I think after five years we can make another move."
Yet three of the four groups who refused to settle, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR), have decried the agreement as selling-out. AWR Director Michael Garrity says those who agreed to the deal agreed to exactly what they'd filed suit against in 2008. In Garrity's eyes, fears over congressional delisting do nothing to justify the 10 plaintiffs' actions.
"Instead they're politically delisting wolves," Garrity says. "I don't see any difference. They're setting the precedent that if Congress threatens to do it, they'll do it for them."
AWR and its fellow non-settlers held their ground in Molloy's courtroom on March 24 during a settlement hearing. Their attorney, James Tutchton of WildEarth Guardians, called the agreement a "dramatic flip-flop" on the part of the groups asking Molloy to issue a stay of his 2010 ruling to relist. Tutchton argued that ESA protections for wolves should remain until the five-state population reaches a total of between 2,000 and 5,000 wolves.
Though Molloy's ruling on the settlement could come any day, those behind the agreement strongly believe they're on the right path for wolf conservation. Leahy says as tempting as it might be to hold out in court, continued litigation will inevitably lead to "a worse deal" for wolves. Wetzler agrees, and adds that failing to preempt Congress' delisting proposals would only have hurt the wolves and, more broadly, the ESA.
"The groups that settled are groups that are in Washington, D.C., on the Hill every single day," Wetzler says. "You're talking about some of the largest, toughest conservation groups...and we wouldn't have agreed to this if we didn't think it provides some real, meaningful protections."
However, the settlement isn't just under attack by environmentalists like Garrity. Even the political right has publicly panned the deal—proving once again that when it comes to wolves, compromise is a relative term.
"Here we go again," Rehberg wrote in response to the settlement. "Fool us once, shame on you—fool us twice shame on us. But I'm not going to sit around and wait for them to fool us a third time with another lawsuit that once again removes Montana's right to manage our own wildlife."