Following in her predecessor’s footsteps, freshman U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney is attempting to override the Endangered Species Act legislatively to put Wyoming’s wolves back under state control.
On several occasions since 2014, Wyoming’s congressional delegates have unsuccessfully attempted to “delist” wolves as a federally protected threatened species. Introduced this week, the Cheney-sponsored bill, like past iterations of legislation, is collaborative with Great Lakes-states politicians trying to regain jurisdictions over their wolf populations.
“Wyoming should be able to manage the gray wolf without outside interference,” the congresswoman said in a statement. “This bill will stop the ‘management by litigation’ culture that has done so much damage to our state.”
Cheney did not respond to interview requests Friday.
The bill would not only force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hand in ceding control of wolves to Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, but also prohibit future lawsuits challenging delisting.
The bill was introduced while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is still mulling whether to reverse a 2014 district court judge’s ruling that restored federal protections for Wyoming’s 300-some gray wolves. Oral arguments were exchanged in September.
A ruling could come any day, said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, whose 2012 lawsuit over Wyoming’s wolves prevailed two years later in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
“Rather than trusting the courts, they’ve decided to move forward with this legislative approach,” Preso said. “I don’t know what it indicates, that Wyoming hasn’t put its faith in the courts and instead wants to do an end run around them.”
Gov. Matt Mead supports the congressional approach, policy advisor David Willms said.
“Really at this point we’re just waiting on the circuit court to make a decision,” Willms said, “and we’ll be following the delegation’s actions.”
It’s too early to say, he said, if the new Congress and Trump administration will help the wolf bill’s chance of success.
“You can look through the past 40-plus years of the Endangered Species Act and there are only handful of times that Congress has come in and changed the status of a species,” Willms said.
The tactic has worked before for wolves, however: Montana and Idaho’s populations were brought under state jurisdiction via congressional order.
Wolf numbers have grown steadily since Wyoming lost its ability to manage them, which marked the end of legal hunting. An April 2016 estimate of 382 animals was 25 percent more than the last full year of state jurisdiction and near the highest level since wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s.
Conflicts with livestock in 2016 were also at record levels, with much of the bloodshed occurring in the “predator zone” where wolves could be killed without limit any time of year when Wyoming was in charge.
Wyoming’s wolf plan was found to be deficient because of a lack of a legally enforceable population buffer. State officials managed the non-Yellowstone wolf population above the basement level permitted —10 breeding pairs as 100 wolves — but insisted that the buffer be a voluntary measure.
One Jackson conservationist said Wyoming could have taken a more timely approach to resolving the wolf dispute.
“I think if Wyoming had went to a statewide trophy game plan for wolves, and got rid of the predator classification, that the state would have been managing wolves long ago,” said Chris Colligan, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s wildlife program coordinator. “Instead they’re trying a legislative end run, which has so far not worked.”