Wyoming assumed management once again of wolves within its borders on Tuesday, and those apex predators wandering outside the northwest corner of the state can be shot on sight.
The Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., entered its final order in favor of Wyoming in a lawsuit that landed wolves back on the endangered species list in 2014. The court announced in early March that it had upheld the state’s plan but had not issued its final order.
Tuesday’s decision is what Wyoming wolf managers hope is the last legal battle in a roller-coaster legal process.
“All indications are that this decision shows once again that Wyoming’s plan is a sound management plan,” said Brian Nesvik, chief of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s wildlife division. “They will remain in the hands of state management. For Wyoming this is, again, this is a time for us to celebrate. This is a good thing for Wyoming to be able to take on another wildlife resource.”
No changes were made to Wyoming’s wolf management plan from when the state oversaw the carnivores between 2012 and 2014, Nesvik said.
That means Wyoming will manage the 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation.
Wolves in 85 percent of the state are considered a predator and can be shot on sight, similar to coyotes. They are classified as a trophy animal in the northwest corner of the state and subject to fall hunting seasons. Those seasons have not yet been set, Nesvik said, adding that wolves in those areas cannot be hunted right now. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will set those seasons after a public comment period.
A coalition of environmental groups sued Wyoming in 2012 over the state’s management plan. A representative for the group said in early March the coalition was disappointed with the D.C. court’s ruling, said Tim Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm representing Defenders of Wildlife and several other environmental groups who filed suit against the state.
Earthjustice’s lawyers argued, essentially, that Wyoming’s plan to maintain a buffer of more wolves than the required amount was not legally binding and insufficient under the Endangered Species Act. The court ruled that Wyoming’s plan was adequate, and environmental groups did not appeal the decision.
Preliminary estimates showed Wyoming had about 240 wolves at the end of 2016, Tyler Abbott, Wyoming field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Star-Tribune in March.
The feds killed about 115 wolves in 2016 because of livestock depredations, he said. In 2015, the service killed about 54 wolves.
Because of the high number of wolves killed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Nesvik estimates hunting season quotas this fall will be similar to those before wolves went back on the list.
In 2012, 42 wolves were killed by hunters in the state’s trophy area and 25 were killed in the rest of the state. The next year, 24 wolves were shot in the trophy area and 39 taken in the rest of the state.
Gov. Matt Mead expressed his satisfaction with the court’s decision in a news release sent Tuesday evening.
“I am delighted that the Circuit Court recognized Wyoming’s commitment to manage a recovered wolf population,” Mead said. “Our wolf management plan is a result of years of hard work by people across Wyoming. We recognize the need to maintain a healthy wolf population.”
Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995. They have been off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho since 2011.