From the moment it was first reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park nearly 15 years ago, the gray wolf has been the subject of continual litigation. Last week's ruling by a federal district court requiring the United States to return gray wolves in Idaho and Montana to the federal list of threatened and endangered species is only the latest twist in the wolf's strange legal journey. It is made all the stranger by the fact that by every objective measure, the recovery of the wolf has been a stunning conservation success.
Now, one question looms over all others: When will we be able to recognize success?
Throughout all of the legal wrangling, one truth has remained constant. The wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains has flourished, topping even the most optimistic predictions made when the recovery project started. In 2009, the region contained more than 1,700 wolves in 242 packs. In fact, the population has exceeded recovery goals for nine consecutive years, a staggering achievement for conservation and proof that the Endangered Species Act can protect and return populations to health under very difficult conditions. Yet here we are, with the wolf headed back onto the endangered species list.
What happened? The federal district court in Montana ruled that all of the Northern Rockies wolves must be treated as a single population; if they remain at risk in one of the three states they inhabit, they have to stay on the list. And the Department of the Interior does consider some of the wolves to still be at risk, to some degree, in Wyoming. That's because Wyoming law allows for largely unregulated killing of the wolves in most of the state once they are taken off the endangered list there. Idaho and Montana, on the other hand, have labored hard to craft strong, scientifically based management plans that include only controlled hunts.
We de-listed the wolves in those states but not in Wyoming. Now the court has said that such state-by-state de-listing won't fly for this population: It's all or nothing.
This turn of events is frustrating. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that state and tribal management is the most appropriate conservation tool to manage the recovered gray wolf population in this area. In fact, since 2005, most management responsibilities for wolves within Idaho and Montana have been turned over to those states. The results show that ranchers, tribes, hunters and wild wolves can successfully coexist and that the wolf population is sustainable.
Some say keeping all of the Northern Rockies gray wolves on the endangered list is a good thing. However, eternal "protection" of that sort was never the goal of the Endangered Species Act. The continued inclusion of this wolf population on the endangered list diverts our limited resources from other species that are truly endangered.
Keeping the wolf on the list also undermines the credibility of the Endangered Species Act and the trust that the American people have in it. When success has been achieved, we need to honor that success and keep the promise of the act: that the list is a temporary way station on the road to recovery for endangered species, not a final destination.
The court's decision clearly shows that, for the gray wolf, recovery requires Wyoming to change its policy. If Wyoming were to join its neighbor states and develop a wolf management strategy with adequate regulatory mechanisms on human-caused wolf mortality, including hunting, all three states would benefit. Idaho and Montana have shown that when such a plan is in place, wolf attacks on livestock can be controlled and even hunting can be allowed without jeopardizing the wolf's hard-won recovery.
I am proud of the efforts of the Interior Department's agencies - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service - along with our state and tribal partners, conservation groups, ranchers, sportsmen and outfitters, and the many others who have contributed to the gray wolf's success story.
We will rebound from this, just as the wolf itself has rebounded. Time, enduring partnerships and the resilience of this magnificent creature are on our side. We hope that Wyoming will be willing to join us.
Tom Strickland is assistant secretary of the Interior for fish and wildlife and parks. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.