Comment: Lawsuit challenges state protection of gray wolves
By Noelle Cremers
The gray wolf officially became an endangered species, protected by the California Endangered Species Act, on Jan. 1. A lawsuit challenges the listing, saying the state Fish and Game Commission exceeded its authority in creating protection for the wolf.
With no fanfare, a decision to list the gray wolf as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act took effect on Jan. 1. This listing decision by the California Fish and Game Commission was made in 2014 over the strenuous opposition of Farm Bureau, the California Cattlemen's Association and the California Wool Growers Association—and despite a Department of Fish and Wildlife recommendation to the contrary.
Nonetheless, the commission added gray wolves as an endangered species with a 3-1 vote. The action took two and a half years to be codified in state regulations, which now provides the opportunity to challenge the legality of the listing.
And challenge it, we will.
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of Farm Bureau and CCA. The lawsuit challenges the gray wolf listing as illegal on three grounds:
- The listing is based on flimsy evidence. The listing process was triggered by a single wolf crossing the Oregon border in 2011—and that wolf has since wandered out of California. Never before has a listing been initiated by a single animal's occasional wanderings into the state.
- The commission ignored the number of gray wolves outside of California. It only looked at wolf numbers in California, ignoring healthy wolf populations in neighboring states. In fact, the wolf's overall status has improved to the point that the federal government has proposed removing the species from its own "endangered" list.
- The gray wolf is not covered by the law. The jurisdiction of the California ESA is limited to native species and subspecies. But the gray wolves addressed by this listing are originally from Canada; they represent a subspecies that was never historically present in California.
Farm Bureau does not believe the Fish and Game Commission exercised its legal authority appropriately when it listed gray wolves as endangered. The lawsuit seeks to remedy that action and improve the management of gray wolves in California.
Prior to the commission's listing decision, the Department of Fish and Wildlife had begun work on a Gray Wolf Conservation Plan to address what the plan described as "the important concerns that arrive with the presence of wolves." Farm Bureau was a member of the group of interested parties that provided input to the department as it developed the plan. The listing by the commission significantly hampered the planning process, tying the Fish and Wildlife Department's hands and severely limiting management actions.
The department recognized wolves will have conflicts with livestock. Farm Bureau and others pointed out throughout the planning process that not only will wolves kill domestic animals, but they will also harm livestock in other ways, such as lowering weight gains and pregnancy rates. The listing takes away effective tools for managing wolves. In fact, even chasing wolves away from livestock is likely illegal due to the broad definition of the term "take" of a protected species under the California ESA.
Gray wolves are dangerous predators. An analysis of livestock lost to predators in Idaho showed an individual wolf was 10 times more likely to kill livestock than an individual mountain lion, 20 times more likely to kill than a coyote, and 50 times more likely to kill than a black bear. This information helps validate the concern livestock producers feel about gray wolves becoming established in California.
Conservation organizations promoting re-establishment of wolves repeatedly state that livestock lost to wolves represents only a small percentage of livestock lost to other predators—but as wolf populations increase, livestock losses will surely rise. We need wolves managed in California to protect livestock and to protect native wildlife, as well.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife recognized this when it recommended against listing gray wolves under the California ESA. The department recommended management options that would have provided significant protection for wolves, but would have left flexibility for management as wolves become re-established in California.
Unfortunately, the Fish and Game Commission ignored this advice, which is why Farm Bureau, CCA and PLF are challenging the decision.
Here's how CFBF President Paul Wenger put it, in a news release announcing the lawsuit: "Farm Bureau wants to see real opportunities to manage wolves for the protection of both wild and domestic animals. The Fish and Game Commission not only exceeded its authority by listing the gray wolf, it restricted the opportunity for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to manage the species in an effective way."
The wolves' return to California shows they are expanding their territory, President Wenger said: "The California ESA was meant to protect species with declining populations—the exact opposite of what's happening with wolves."
(Noelle Cremers is director of natural resources and commodities for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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