This week, a federal court in Montana will decide the fate of the grey wolf in Idaho and Montana, yet again. For the past twenty years, wildlife advocates have been in court fighting for the wolves. The first wave of litigation was an effort to put them on the endangered species list. The second effort was to fight to keep them on the list once the population grew. And now, advocates are fighting to stop trophy hunting of the animals.
This year, federal biologists gave the go-ahead for wolf trophy hunting in both Idaho and Montana, and so far 150 wolves have been killed pursuant to valid hunting licenses. The hunting programs are coordinated under state law, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who is responsible for establishing and maintaining the protected species lists, is monitoring the hunts.
The Wildlife Service’s official position is that it will not get involved in regulation of the hunting as long as the respective wolf populations remain above the targeted goals of each area. Currently, Idaho has a goal of maintaining at least 150 wolves, but the state has an estimated population of 700. Montana is looking to maintain a target level of 425 wolves, which would allow for a population reduction of 25% of the existing population this year.
The grey wolf has been a major issue throughout the rocky mountain region because of the disparate interests involved: one side seeks to reestablish the animal to its original population, while the other seeks to protect private land and ranching interests against a known predator. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, wolf populations were nearly eradicated as a result of loose hunting regulations and aggressive ranching operations. But, over the last decade, the grey wolf population has rebounded after its deliberate reintroduction to the region, and the rift between ranchers and wildlife advocates has resurfaced anew.
This week’s case is taking place in the 9th Circuit of the federal court system, which includes Idaho and Montana, as well as the western pacific states. Colorado is in the 10th Circuit and therefore the outcome of this case will not have a direct effect upon the laws applied here. However, there will be a ripple effect that will make its way down to us from the north.
Currently, there are no grey wolves in Colorado, according to the Colorado Wildlife Division. Hence, there is no current debate on whether or not to hunt them. But, as trophy hunting is allowed in Montana and Idaho, the potential for the wolf population to spread into our state decreases.
Moreover, Wyoming recently ended its own legal bout in federal court over the wolf, where the state fought to de-list the grey wolf as a protected species and give it a dual classification. The new classification will allow trophy hunting in the northwest region of Wyoming (near Idaho and Montana), and will list the wolf as a predator throughout the rest of the state, allowing for defensive killing of wolves to protect domestic livestock.
Wyoming has attempted to allow hunting of its wolf population since 2004, but the state’s requests had previously been rejected. Following the most recent hearings, the 10th Circuit federal court held that wolf hunting may be permitted in Wyoming, as long as there is sufficient proof that the hunting will not decrease the state’s wolf population below target levels. So, as soon as state and federal biologists can agree on a number, it is likely that wolf trophy hunting will open in Wyoming as well.
Why does Colorado care about the Wyoming case in particular? Well, the Wyoming case is important because both Colorado and Wyoming are within the 10th Circuit. Therefore, the decisions reached in that case will apply directly to any future cases brought in Colorado. Also, as the wolf issue continues to unfold, many of the legal battles taking place in Idaho and Montana today will also likely determine the outcome of cases in Colorado in the future. This is somewhat ironic because even though there are no wolves here yet, their fate in Colorado is already being influenced, if not determined by other states.
Colorado is also uniquely situated for the wolf controversy. According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife
, wolves used to inhabit every county in the state. Accordingly, the state is geographically ideal for a large wolf population. But, there have not been wolves in the state since 1930. Colorado ranchers essentially wiped the population out in response to the wolves’ predation, or killing of ranch livestock. One of the key factors in the wolf’s history within the state (or lack thereof) if the fact that Colorado has the largest human population of all of the rocky mountain states. Therefore, Colorado will have a greater struggle between the private landholder interests and those of wildlife advocates.
So, while it may seem like Colorado doesn’t yet have a dog in this hunt, it may just be that Colorado’s future relationship with the wolf has already been determined without us fully realizing it.