Local wolf ambassador takes message to court

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The National Parks Service's decision to use sharpshooters instead of reintroducing wolves to control elk populations in Rocky Mountain National Park was challenged in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals by WildEarth Guardians.

The court heard oral arguments on Sept. 20. Following the hearing, WildEarth Guardians and the University of Denver School of Law had a press conference featuring Fable, an ambassador wolf from the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide. The center has been involved in several efforts to prohibit wolf hunting in Wyoming and other Rocky Mountain states and has begun Project Wolf to make people aware of what it calls the consequences of removing gray wolves from the endangered species list in these states.

When the park service first made its decision to use sharpshooters instead of wolves WildEarth Guardians took the service to district court. After it lost that case, the organization appealed.

The appeal's hearing was scheduled at the University of Colorado School of Law in the Wittemyer Courtroom. Each year the Court moves its hearings to law schools in its region as part of its “Bench and Bar Week.”

WildEarth Guardians is represented by the University of Denver Sturm College of Law Environmental Law Clinic. Professor Mike Harris directs the clinic; however, a student, Jenni Barnes, argued the case before the panel of judges.

“It's odd that we're even here given the overwhelming benefit that the Park Service acknowledges that wolves would have on the Park's ecosystem and the Park's legal obligation to consider alternatives that would improve the Park,” Harris said.

Barnes, a third year law student, recently finished in the finals of the Pace National Environmental Moot Court Competition.

According to WildEarth Guardians, the Park Service recognized the need to manage overpopulated elk in Rocky Mountain National Park in a December 2007 management plan, but the agency only briefly considered a wolf reintroduction as the preferred option to control elk herds. The agency's decision-making process not only violates federal planning mandates, its decision to use sharpshooters also violates the agency's organic act that established the Park Service as an agency that is supposed to prioritize conservation, Keefover said.

“Wolves provide enormous ecological benefits to both elk and ecosystems that human sharpshooters cannot even offer,” said Wendy Keefover of WildEarth Guardians. “This business of allowing sharpshooters to skulk around a national park to shoot habituated elk is absurd and obscene.”

The park service countered the WildEarth Guardian's argument citing a lack of support from other agencies, safety concerns from people living nearby, expected contacts between wolves and people and a lack of funding and staffing to give attention to a wolf population. Since the sharpshooters and trained volunteers starting culling elk in 2008, 131 elk have been killed bringing the herd in the lower elevations to between 600-800 elk.

“Wolves keep fragile stream communities healthy. The plants and a whole host of fauna, from fish to frogs to song birds to moose, would thrive in the presence of wolves,” Keefover affirmed. “Wolves are also good for elk, culling weak, sick and injured animals from the herd.”

Park Superintendent Vaughn Baker did not completely disagree with this statement in a 2008 column published in the Denver Post. He states: “In an ideal world, Rocky Mountain National Park would contain an intact ecosystem with all its pieces present. However, the park is not a complete ecosystem, and native predators-including wolves and grizzly bears-have long been missing. As a result, the vegetation and other species in the park suffer because of an abundance of elk. But reintroducing wolves into Rocky Mountain National Park is not the immediate answer.”

He explains that the park doesn't compare well with Yellowstone where wolf reintroduction has seen success. At only one-ninth the size of Yellowstone, the park isn't big enough nor does it have the large numbers of natural prey. It is also much higher in altitude and has communities “literally on the park's front doorsteps.”

He said reintroducing wolves to Colorado is a separate issue from reintroducing them to the park and that there are likely other areas of the state more suitable for wolf reintroduction. “If wolves migrate to Rocky Mountain National Park from other areas, they would be protected as a native species and managed accordingly,” he states.

In an email dated Oct. 3, Keefover states: “We may well win the suit. If we do, it only means that the National Park Service has to assess a wolf alternative as part of it federally-mandated, public-planning process. It does not mean they will restore wolves, per se. If we lose this litigation, we would not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court as it's not likely a case they would take. We are putting out an action alert soon asking our members to ask the Colorado Congressional Delegation to lean on the Park Service to really look at restoring wolves to the Park.”