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John McCoy: Wolf ruling might be a blessing in disguise

AP file photo

Sometimes legal “victories” aren’t what they seem.

Take, for instance, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals’ recent ruling that wolves in the western Great Lakes states should not be taken off the federal Endangered Species List.

At first glance, the ruling appears to be a victory for the Humane Society of the United States, Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live, Friends of Animals and their Environment, and other animal-rights groups. They wanted wolves to stay on the list, and the court agreed they would — at least for the time being.

Provisions within the court’s ruling, however, appear to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a clear future blueprint for de-listing endangered populations.

For example, the court ruled that USFWS officials were within their authority to de-list a distinct population segment of a species (Western Great Lakes wolves, Yellowstone-area grizzly bears, etc.) that had recovered enough to be taken off the list. Animal-rights activists had argued that the service could only de-list the species as a whole.

The court also ruled that the USFWS could make a de-listing decision based on a species’ current range instead of its historic range. That’s huge; gray wolves are abundant enough in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to merit de-listing, but they probably will never be reestablished in the eastern Great Lakes states, New England, the southern Rocky Mountains, California and Texas.

Lawyers for the animal-rights groups argued that ongoing mortality from humans and disease threatened the wolves’ existence, and the USFWS failed to take that into account. The court found that USFWS biologists had, indeed, considered those factors. Furthermore, the court found that the area’s wolf population had continued to grow despite those influences.

The ruling on mortality caused by humans is important, because lately animal-rights groups have started including the effects of global climate change in their list of arguments against de-listing actions. The judges’ ruling appears to nip that in the bud.

Because Minnesota allows some livestock-killing wolves to be killed by state-government agents, animal-rights activists tried to characterize the state as an “unregulated killing zone.” No doubt rolling their eyes at the ludicrousness of that allegation, the court’s judges ruled that the killings were well-regulated and didn’t affect wolf survival.

The animal-rights groups’ petition to the court also sought to muddy the waters by claiming that there were two species of wolf, and because of that extra precautions had to be made to maintain the species’ genetic integrity. The court rejected that notion and upheld the USFWS’ contention that only one species of wolf was in question.

The message to the USFWS seems clear: It’s OK to de-list distinct regional populations of a species as long as biologists can prove that population has sufficiently recovered, and recovery across the species’ entire historic range is not required.

Will this ruling help reduce the number of lawsuits being filed any time USFWS officials decide to de-list a species? Certainly, biologists in the USWFS and in state fish-and-game agencies hope it will.

I’m not sure it will. Filing these lawsuits gives animal-rights groups the chance to bellow, at the top of their lungs, “Ohmigosh! The feds will allow knuckle-dragging Neanderthal hunters to kill off every [insert species here] unless you send us money NOW!”

Fortunately, the court’s ruling sets a precedent that should make future lawsuits less likely to succeed.

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