A Sub-Optimal Ruling on the Rocky Mountain Wolf Hunt

WolfJudge Molloy has refused to stop the wolf hunt that has already begun in Idaho and will soon begin (September 15th) in Montana.  Yet his decision to deny the preliminary injunction sought by Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, the Humane Society & others does  acknowledge that the plaintiffs will likely prevail (eventually) on the merits.

Courts will only issue preliminary injunctions (which halt the challenged activity while the court considers its permissibility) when plaintiffs show that they are 1) “likely to succeed on the merits,” (2) that they are “likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief,” (3) that the “balance of equities tips” in their favor, and (4) that such an injunction is in the“public interest.” Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 129 S. Ct. 365, 374 (2008).

In this case, the court determined that it would likely find that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist a portion of a “Distinct Population Segment” of a protected species ran afoul of the Endangered Species Act.  It also concluded that the agency’s decision seemed to contradict its own previous interpretations of its authority under the statute.  Inconsistent agency rulings are not entitled to judicial deference.  Consequently, the court need not defer to the agency’s new interpretation and the plaintiffs would probably prevail.

Unfortunately, the court also found that no irreparable harm would ensue if the hunt were permitted to continue since the wolf population (according to the court’s interpretation of the scientific data presented) could survive a diminution in its numbers without suffering significant harm.  The court specifically rejected the argument that the loss of individual wolves’ lives constituted an irreparable harm.  It held that such a ruling would directly contravene the language of the Endangered Species Act, which permits incidental takes of listed species.  Since granting a preliminary injunction requires both a likelihood that plaintiffs will prevail and a finding of irreparable harm, the court denied the injunction.

Overall, the ruling offers cause for both disappointment and hope.  I continue to believe that the injunction should have issued and that as a matter of basic logic, a significant loss of population among a listed species runs afoul of the ESA.  However, the fact that it seems likely that the court will eventually rule in the plaintiffs’ favor is encouraging.  Still, the judge’s reasoning relies on the fact that Wyoming lacks a viable wolf management plan and that delisting the wolf in just part of its range was not appropriate.  It remains to be seen what will happen if and when Wyoming drafts a plan.  Even a favorable court ruling under the current facts will not prevent a future delisting and future hunts.

Vigilance and advocacy remain necessary.

–David Cassuto

Update: the Montana hunt has begun.

3 Responses

  1. […] long post with a discussion of the district court’s ruling (you can read a few thoughts here).  I will just note that in National Wildlife Federation v. Burlington N.R.R., Inc., (23 F.3d […]

  2. […] it’s a complicated issue and the chance of an unalloyed victory seem slim (see my post here and a related one here).  But the district court’s as yet unissued decision is not […]

  3. […] as well as about the lawsuit that followed.  When last we left the story, the district court had denied a preliminary injunction that would have stopped the wolf hunts that subsequently took place in Montana and Idaho.  He did […]

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