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Judge says wolf reintroduction program is illegal

wolf

Orders transplanted animals removed

December 13, 1997
Web posted at: 10:43 p.m. EST (0343 GMT)

CASPER, Wyoming (CNN) -- A federal judge in Wyoming has ordered the removal of wolves released in the northern Rockies as part of a controversial program to reintroduce the animals to an area where they had been wiped out in the 1930s.

In an ironic twist, U.S. District Judge William Downes said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery program -- designed to fulfill a goal of the federal Endangered Species Act -- actually ended up violating that act.

Under the program, wolves released into Yellowstone National Park and the mountains of central Idaho could be shot if they were found preying on livestock. But native wolves, who might wander into the area, are protected from hunting by federal law. So Downes said the reintroduction plan was illegal because it would allow those native wolves to be shot.

"Congress did not intend to allow reduction of protections to existing natural populations in whole or in part," the judge wrote in a ruling handed down Friday.

Judge stays ruling pending appeal

Downes ordered the wildlife service to remove the transplanted wolves and their offspring, a population of about 160 wolves. However, the judge stayed his ruling pending an expected appeal.

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He said after the removal process was complete, all native wolves remaining in the Rockies would be protected from hunting by federal law.

A number of environmental groups blasted the decision.

"It is a tragedy even to discuss dismantling the greatest wildlife restoration effort in our nation's history," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife.

Phil Kavits, a spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, the nation's largest conservation group, said the decision was "dead wrong and violates common sense."

"We simply will not stand for it. We will appeal," Kavits said.

Ranchers opposed reintroduction

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Wolves roamed the mountains of Wyoming and Idaho until the 1930s, when they were eradicated under a federal program. Today, native populations exist mostly well to the north, in Montana and Canada.

The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, calls for federal agencies to develop recovery plans for wolves and other threatened wildlife. But the program to reintroduce them drew strong opposition from area ranchers, who feared the wolves would prey on their livestock.

To appease opponents of the program, the wildlife service designated the wolves as an "experimental" population, which meant they could be hunted if they became a menace to livestock. In 1995 and 1996, 66 Canadian grey wolves were released into the wilds.

Downes' ruling came in a suit brought by the Wyoming Farm Bureau which was concerned that the program might set a precedent that would weaken protection for endangered species.

Denny Smith, a rancher and state legislator from Powell, near Yellowstone Park, was all smiles after hearing the ruling.

"I'm not anti-wolf. But the extremists have pushed this down our throats," he said. "I believe we should have the right to protect our livestock and not fear repercussions from our federal government."

Sharon Rose, a spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency was still reviewing Downes' decision and the Justice Department would decide whether to appeal.

Correspondent Paul Caron contributed to this report.

 
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