The federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Ore., has ruled that five conservation organizations can proceed with a lawsuit challenging Wildlife Services’ killing of wolves in Idaho. The ruling Tuesday overturned a decision by the U.S. District Court of Idaho in January 2018 that dismissed the suit on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the action.
The dispute primarily involves Wildlife Services’ wolf-killing activities in northern Idaho, done at the request of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to reverse a decline in the elk population there. However, the federal agency has killed wolves in other parts of the state, including the Wood River Valley and surrounding area, in response to complaints of depredation on livestock. In July 2018, Wildlife Services killed three wolves in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area on the west side of the White Cloud Mountains and in September it killed one wolf in the upper Corral Creek drainage east of Ketchum after they had reportedly killed sheep.
The conservation organizations, which include Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, filed the suit in 2016 seeking an injunction against Wildlife Services’ wolf-control activities until it prepares an up-to-date environmental analysis.
The wolf-killing is conducted under an environmental assessment completed in 2011, shortly before wolves in the northern Rockies were delisted as an endangered species. At that time, the agency decided to continue its existing program to boost elk populations in the Lolo and Selway elk zones. Because Wildlife Services determined that killing wolves would not have a significant environmental impact, it did not prepare an environmental impact statement, but relied on a less extensive environmental assessment.
In their lawsuit, the conservation groups claimed that Wildlife Services had never analyzed how many wolves may be killed, the ecological impacts of doing so or the cumulative impacts of the agency’s killing combined with private hunting and trapping. The groups argued that the agency should have prepared an EIS addressing those questions.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, which sets requirements for federal agencies to conduct environmental analysis, a plaintiff seeking to establish standing in court must show that he or she has suffered an injury and that the injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable court decision. The district court dismissed the conservation groups’ action on the grounds that their claimed injury of reduced opportunities to view wolves was not “redressable” because Idaho could engage in the same lethal wolf-management operations without the help of the federal government.
However, the appeals court concluded that whether the Department of Fish and Game would implement a program identical to Wildlife Services’ is a matter of speculation, and ruled that the conservation groups do indeed have standing to proceed.
“With the new decision, we can return to the heart of the matter—whether or not Wildlife Services adequately reviewed the ecological consequences of killing scores of wolves each year in Idaho,” said Talasi Brooks, an attorney with Western Watersheds Project.