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Rule on shooting gray wolves overturned

The rule allowed ranchers to shoot gray wolves on sight if they were attacking livestock.U.S. Fish And Wildlife / AP file

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Bush administration violated the Endangered Species Act when it relaxed protections on many of the nation’s gray wolves.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones in Portland rescinds a rule change that allowed ranchers to shoot wolves on sight if they were attacking livestock, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.

In April 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service divided the wolves’ range into three areas and reclassified the Eastern and Western populations as threatened instead of endangered. The Eastern segment covers the area from the Dakotas east to Maine, while the Western segment extends west from the Dakotas. The agency left wolves in the Southwest classified as endangered.

The judge ruled that the government acted improperly by combining areas where wolves were doing well, such as Montana, with places where their numbers had not recovered.

Judge: Norton sought to ‘gerrymander’
“Interior Secretary Gale Norton tried to gerrymander the entire contiguous 48 states so that wolves in a few areas would make up for the absence of wolves in much larger regions,” Robinson said.

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is looking at the ruling to determine its implications.

“We haven’t had a wolf killed by a private citizen defending private property since the new rule went into effect,” Bangs said.

Practically speaking, only wolves in northwestern Montana were affected by the rule change that allowed ranchers to shoot wolves on sight, Bangs said. The rule downgrading wolves to threatened never extended to experimental populations in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho and the rest of Montana, and no packs have been established in other states in the region, Bangs said.

Wolves nearly wiped out in Lower 48 by ’70s
By the 1970s, wolves had been virtually wiped out in the Lower 48 states to protect livestock.

Gray wolves were reintroduced in and around Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, and federal wildlife officials have declared their recovery a success. Officials estimate there are now more than 800 outside the park in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

A small number of Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced in the Southwest in 1998.