A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Congress acted legally when it eliminated Endangered Species Act protections for the Northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves and opened the door to wolf hunts.
The opinion, by a Democrat-appointed panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, found that when Congress last year ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protection for that distinct wolf population, lawmakers were amending the law and not violating the separation of powers doctrine.
The decision means wolves in the Northern Rockies will continue to be managed by states in the region, which had an estimated 1,774 wolves in 287 packs as of the end of last year. Animals outside of that area, including the lone male that has been prowling back and forth over the California-Oregon border, remain protected.
The appeals panel ruling cited a U.S. Supreme Court case, which indicates that the decision is probably the final say in a fight that involved all three branches of government.
The fish and wildlife agency in 2009 dropped most wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endangered species list, saying that the region's population had grown enough to be considered recovered. Environmental groups sued, and a U.S. District Court struck down the agency's decision.
Congress then attached a rider to an appropriations act ordering the Interior Department to reissue the 2009 rule. Environmental groups sued the Interior Department, arguing that Congress had reversed a judicial action and thus violated the separation of powers doctrine.
But in an opinion written by Judge Mary Schroeder, the 9th Circuit panel rejected that reasoning. The judges cited a Supreme Court decision in a case involving congressional action that allowed some timber harvesting in protected spotted owl habitat.
Attorney James Tutchton of WildEarth Guardians, one of the plaintiffs, said, "This case had very little to do with wolves and a lot to do with the Constitution." Congress acted simply to reverse a decision by a judge, Tutchton added.
Lawmakers "switched some winners to losers," he said. "That's what's dangerous. They could do that to anybody on any issue."
Conservationists have fought to retain federal protections for the rebounding wolf population in the Rockies, saying hunting threatens that recovery.
Hunters and ranchers complained that the predator was killing livestock and big game. After Congress acted, Idaho and Montana last year approved wolf hunts. So far, the two states have issued more than 40,000 wolf tags and hunters and trappers have killed more than 500 of the animals.
OR7, the young male that wandered into California, left a pack in northeastern Oregon that is considered part of the Northern Rockies population. But he regained federal protection when he traveled into western Oregon and Northern California.
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