The Yellowstone Wolves Win One

The 300 gray wolves that roam the wilds of Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho won’t be leaving anytime soon, thanks to a decision by Denver’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. In January, the appeals court overturned a 1997 ruling that called for the removal of the wolves that had been introduced to Yellowstone and Idaho by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1995 and 1996.

Wyoming judge William Downes had issued the 1997 eviction notice in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which insisted that the wolf reintroduction was illegal because it violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Because ranchers were worried about wolves attacking livestock, the wolves had been introduced as an “experimental, non-essential population”—a condition that made it legal to kill or relocate problem wolves. However, under the ESA, the wolves could only be granted experimental status if that status did not endanger naturally occurring wolves already in the area. Since solitary “natural” wolves had occasionally been reported in the areas of reintroduction, the AFBF claimed the reintroduction program violated the ESA.

But the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver disagreed with the AFBF and decided that Downes’ 1997 ruling ignored the larger intention of the Act. A “restrictive interpretation [of the law] could actually undermine the department’s ability to address biological reality, and thus handicap its ability to effectuate species recovery,” the court said during its ruling.

Environmentalists hailed the case as a precedent-setting win that not only keeps wolves in Yellowstone, but also gives the ESA increased flexibility. “It is gratifying that the appeals court would not allow overly technical interpretations of the Endangered Species Act to stand in the way of its true intent,” says Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), the first group to appeal the wolf eviction order. According to Defenders of Wildlife President Roger Schlickeisen, the appeals court decision protects a special provision of the ESA that allows for flexibility when species introductions are controversial. “If the appeals court had upheld the original decision, the law would have become so restrictive that many future introductions would be impossible,” says Schlickeisen.

The AFBF, however, feels that the ruling allows too much flexibility. “We’re disappointed with the case,” says Rick Krause, assistant counsel for AFBF. “It sets a dangerous precedent for everybody, because it tells the government that as long as federal officials comply with the general purpose of a law, it doesn’t matter what the specific language is.”