Why Are Wyoming’s Wolves Back on the Endangered Species List?

480px-Canis_lupus_layingOn September 23, 2014, a D.C. federal district court invalidated the 2012 rule that had delisted Wyoming’s wolves.   The Court had only one real problem with the delisting rule. She held that the rule violated the Endangered Species Act because Wyoming’s commitment to maintain in excess of 100 wolves/10 breeding pair within the state (outside of Yellowstone National Park and Wind River Indian Reservation) was included in what the Court considered to be only a voluntary component of the state’s management plan.  The Court believed that, to fulfill ESA requirements, Wyoming’s commitment would need to be part of a binding rule or regulation.  After receiving the ruling, Wyoming immediately tried to address the problem by adopting an emergency regulation that would give its commitment the force and effect of law.

Upon doing so, Wyoming filed a motion asking the Court to revise her ruling and/or to stay the ruling so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could officially incorporate Wyoming’s new regulations into the delisting rule. The FWS filed its own motion, as did Safari Club International, in coordination with the National Rifle Association and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Collectively, all the parties asked the court to allow Wyoming to maintain management over its wolves while the FWS and Wyoming figured out how to make Wyoming’s new regulations part of the delisting rule.  The Court set a rapid briefing schedule for all of the motions and ordered a hearing on September 30.  The Court seemed to recognize the need to resolve these issues before the start of Wyoming’s wolf season, scheduled to begin on October 1.

At the hearing, it became obvious that the practical solution that Wyoming had proposed did not save the day.  The judge was unhappy that Wyoming had waited until after she had ruled on the delisting to make its regulatory changes.  She was not persuaded by the problems and confusion that would result if management transferred abruptly from Wyoming to the FWS.  The judge rejected concerns expressed by the FWS that new rulemaking would be time consuming, expensive and would take the FWS away from other important listing and delisting decisions.   She denied all the motions filed by Wyoming, the FWS and SCI/NRA/RMEF (all of whom were participating as defendant-intervenors) and did not modify or stay her decision to set aside the delisting rule.

The factor that seemed to trouble the judge the most came from statements offered by the FWS.  The FWS argued that if the Court sent the rule back to the FWS but left the delisting intact, the FWS could avoid a full rulemaking process.  In other words, the FWS asserted that if the Court granted the relief the Defendants and Intervenors sought, the FWS would not have to provide public notice and an opportunity to comment on the modified delisting rule. The Court rejected the FWS’s plan not to conduct full rulemaking. She explained that she did not feel that it was appropriate for a judge to be the only one to decide whether a new delisting conformed with the ESA.  She told the parties that the public would need to be part of the rulemaking process when the FWS proposed a new delisting based on Wyoming’s recent actions.

The judge announced her ruling at the end of the hearing and did not issue a written opinion. The delisting rule has been vacated and the wolves have been returned to federal management. The parties have 60 days to appeal the judge’s ruling on the delisting rule and 60 days to appeal her ruling on the post-judgment motions.  For the time being, Wyoming’s 2014 wolf hunt has been cancelled. We will continue to update as we obtain more information on Wyoming’s plan to address this latest obstacle in gray wolf recovery and management.



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