There was an important victory for the environment this week after Chief Judge Terrence W. Boyle excoriated the Interior Department for its management of the the last red wolf population in the wild. His decision could well have kept the red wolves from extinction — against the best efforts of the Interior Department to allow landowners to wipe out the only remaining members of this incredible breed of wolves. The orders of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were a disgrace and utterly disregarded their duty in protecting the environment. The case is Red Wolf Coalition v. United States, 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 188522.
The actions of the Interior Department directly contravened the intent of Congress and prior assurances from officials. Boyle issued a temporary injunction issued against Fish and Wildlife’s shoot-to-kill authorization in 2016 and it is now permanent. He ruled that the government must establish that a wolf is a threat to humans or livestock before it can make a decision to take its life.
He noted that it was the agency itself that reversed the success of the early efforts to protect the wolf population:
“The Red Wolf Program having been declared a success in 2007, defendants, beginning in approximately 2014 and without consultation or formal review, determined to disregard management guidelines which had been in place since 1999 which distinguished between pro bl em and non-problem wolves in regard to landowner take requests, to cease introductions of wolves into the wild, to cease pup-fostering, and to cease actively attempting to manage the threat from coyotes on the viability of the wild red wolf population. While a shift in any one or some of these activities may fall within the agency’s discretion, when taken together, these actions go beyond the agency’s discretion and operate to violate USFWS’ mandate to recover this species in the wild. As defendants point out, due to a number of factors, including gunshot mortality and the increased presence of coyotes, the wild red wolf population began to gradually decline starting in 2006, but more than 100 red wolves remained in the wild in 2012-2013. See [DE 88 at 322]. Notably, however, the wild red wolf population saw a drastic decrease from 2013 to 2015, with only approximately fifty wolves in the wild in 2015. See PI. App. 739. The population decrease coincides with defendants’ making internal revisions tO its guidelines and management policies, in response at least in part to mounting public pressure against red wolf recovery efforts, and defendants have failed to proffer any other evidence which could be deemed responsible for such change.
Allowing the wild red wolf population to continue to decline, while having access to methodologies which were previously successful in increasing or maintaining the wild population of the species, is an interpretation and application of the red wolf 1OG) rule that “is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.” Motor Vehicles Mfrs., 463 U.S. at 43. It is undisputed that the reintroduction of the red wolf into the Red Wolf Recovery Area is not without its challenges, but absent a change in Congress’ mandate or a decision to delist or reclassify the red wolf under the ESA, the recent USFWS decisions to discontinue successful population management tools while increasing the likelihood that landowner lethal takes will be approved for wolves which historically would not have been subject to take, amount to a failure comply with its affirmative duty to “carry out conservation measures until conservation [is] no longer necessary.” Ctr. for Biological Diversity v. Vi/sack, 276 F. Supp.3d 1015, 1031 (D. Nev. 2017); see also Deft. of Wildlife v. Tuggle, 607 F. Supp. 2d at, 1116-17. Defendants’ argument that their current red wolf management efforts are sufficient and within their discretion fails. While agencies might have discretion in selecting a particular program to conserve “…they must in fact carry out a program to conserve, and not an “insignificant” measure that does not, or is not reasonably likely to, conserve endangered or threatened species, To hold otherwise would turn the modest command of section 7(a)(l) into no command at all by allowing agencies to satisfy their obligations with what amounts to total inaction.” Fla. Key Deer, 522 F.3d at 1147. Moreover, as was aptly stated by USFWS in 1999, “[w]ildlife are not the property of landowners but belong to the public and are managed by Federal and State governments for the public good. Such concepts and laws do not provide for taking or removal of wildlife from private lands in the absence of a problem.” PL App. 730.
Defendants themselves have stated that actions such as those it has already undertaken would require compliance under ESA Section 7 and NEPA, PL App. 977, and there is no doubt that defendants’ decisions to cease wolf introductions while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of authorized lethal takes by landowners “may adversely affect an endangered or threatened species”. Ctr. for Biological Diversity, 538 F.3d at 1220 (quoting 40 C.F.R. §1508.27(b)(9) and noting that action would trigger NEPA compliance if this factor is present).
In sum, plaintiffs’ have satisfied their burden to demonstrate the above-described actions of defendants were arbitrary and capricious and otherwise violated Sections 9, 4, and 7 of the ESA as well as NEPA.”
I will not deny my love for the outdoors influenced my judgment but I find the actions of the Interior Department in this area to be reprehensible. Only 35 wolves remain in the five-county managed area and federal officials did their level best to wipe them out. This decision gives these magnificent animals a fighting chance.