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New Debate on Wolf's 'Endangered' Label

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Bush administration is trying again to take the gray wolf of the northern Rockies off the federal endangered species list.

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Having lost in court this summer in a legal battle with conservationists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to reopen for public comment its 2007 proposal to delist the wolves.

"The position of the service is, we think the wolves no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. We're asking the public to weigh in to that," Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife, said in an interview yesterday.

Wolf advocates immediately protested.

"This is the Bush administration's last-gasp attempt to remove protections for wolves," said Louisa Wilcox, a senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Mont.

"It looks like they're launching an all-out run to ram the same flawed package back through," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and a director of Fish and Wildlife during the second Clinton administration.

Bangs said the government will open a comment period on Tuesday, lasting until Nov. 28. After that, officials could swiftly decide to remove federal protections for the wolves in much of the northern Rockies and turn management of the species over to the states. The Endangered Species Act provides that, once a species has recovered, states take control of its management.

The previous attempt to delist the wolves led a coalition of conservation organizations to file suit in federal court. In July, U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy ruled in their favor, issuing an injunction that put the wolves back under federal protection pending a final resolution of the suit.

In his lengthy opinion, Molloy said Wyoming's wolf-management plan -- which would allow the predators to be shot on sight in 88 percent of the state -- would put the wolf population there in jeopardy. Molloy wrote that the federal government's decision to sign off on the Wyoming plan was "arbitrary and capricious." He also said there has not been genetic exchange between isolated subpopulations of wolves, something important for the species's long-term survival.

Fish and Wildlife withdrew its proposal, and now the agency is trying again.

"We're particularly interested in comments related to the court action," Bangs said. One possibility, he said, is that the wolves could be delisted everywhere but Wyoming.

Bangs, who is not a political appointee, said, "We'll take whatever time we need to do a good science-based decision."

"We usually don't promise litigation, but I think in this instance, if they propose the same old, tired rule, we'll be left with no choice but to litigate," said Jenny Harbine, a lawyer with Earthjustice, a plaintiff in the earlier lawsuit.

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