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Biodiversity: Congress challenged on wolf delisting

Western lawmakers use budget battle to advance their anti-wildlife agenda

Gray wolves in the northern Rockies. PHOTO BY THE US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — In the big congressional budget battle last month, wolves may have been one of the big losers, as a rider attached to the spending bill by western lawmakers removed Endangered Species Act protections for the carnivores in Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon and Washington, and northern Utah.

It’s the first time that Congress has successfully meddled in the field of conservation biology, but the move won’t go unchallenged. Conservation advocates, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, last week filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Congress on constitutional grounds. The lawsuit claims that Congress violated the separation of powers provision included in the Third Amendment. Get more information on wolf conservation at the Center for Biological Diversity’s wolf web page.

This principle dictates that the judicial power of the United States lies in the federal courts and not in Congress. In this case, according to attorneys for the conservation group, Congress violated the principle by inserting itself into an ongoing legal case brought by conservation groups over the fate of wolves in the northern Rockies.

In the rider, Congress didn’t tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a science-based determination to remove the wolves. Instead, the legislators saw an opening to use the wrenching budget fight to further their own political agenda.

“The wolf rider is a clear example of overreaching by Congress that resulted in the wrongful removal of protections for wolves,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The rider is not only a disaster for wolves but for any endangered species that a politician doesn’t like. Congress has set a terrible precedent that we hope to overturn.”

“Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican, and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.  “The gray wolf’s biological recovery reflects years of work by scientists, wildlife managers, and our state, tribal, and stakeholder partners to bring wolf populations back to healthy levels.”

Conservation groups say that wolf populations have only started to recover in Oregon and Washington, where a very small number of packs have established. In Utah, only individual wolves have been sighted.

Wolf numbers are strong in Montana and Idaho, but both states would like to drastically reduce numbers in a misguided attempt to increase elk populations and reduce livestock conflicts. In Wyoming where protections remain, the state would like to declare wolves a predatory animal in large portions of the state where they could be shot on sight.

“The job of wolf recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains is not complete,” said Greenwald. “With poaching, planned hunts, and aerial gunning by state agencies, wolves continue to be at risk.”

In August 2010, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula determined that removal of protections for wolves was unlawful because the Fish and Wildlife Service had split the northern Rocky Mountains population along political boundaries, retaining protections in Wyoming, where agency scientists determined wolves remained endangered, but removing them everywhere else.

Instead, the court determined protections can only be removed when the whole population is recovered. The case was still pending on appeal when Congress stepped in and ordered a particular outcome: The removal of federal protection for wolves.

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