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EDITORIAL: If you like Wyoming’s wolf plan, you ought to like judicial review

The fight over Wyoming’s gray wolves has raged for years. So when a panel of appellate judges reversed a lower court and ruled in favor of the state’s wolf management plan last week, everyone pretty much knew what to say.

Environmentalists, for example, decried the decision and vowed to keep fighting.

“We’ll have to figure out what the next steps are but we’re not retreating from the position that wildlife are not vermin,” Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Wyoming’s Congressional delegation welcomed the news and pledged to keep pushing for delisting — such as a bill they’ve introduced that would remove wolves from federal protections and permanently block the judicial system from reconsidering the decision.

“Sound science, not the courts, should decide when a species is recovered,” Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said in a statement.

But lost in the reheated rhetoric were the rather remarkable facts of what just happened: A trio of judges in Washington, D.C. — one appointed by President Bill Clinton, one appointed by President George W. Bush and another picked by President Barack Obama — unanimously agreed that Obama’s Fish and Wildlife Service acted reasonably when it approved Wyoming’s plan for managing wolves.

Friday’s decision didn’t really fit on either side of the debate. There’s no opportunity for Wyomingites to decry activist judges (or even the Obama administration) for meddling with local freedoms, while environmentalists — who often emphasize the importance of judicial review — certainly can’t dismiss the ruling as a case of Western politics trumping science.

At the risk of upsetting everyone, we’d suggest this is a case of the system working as it’s supposed to.

The fact is that wolves are no longer endangered in the Northern Rockies — as both the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have recognized. And, in deferring to the service’s determination, the appellate court in D.C. correctly recognized that fact. For instance, the judges pointed out that the service reintroduced wolves to this region with a recovery goal of 300 animals, and there are now more than 1,700 of them.

Wyoming lost the first round of this most recent legal battle at the lower court level on something of a technicality. But even then, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sided with Wyoming on the controversial shoot-on-sight “predator zone” that environmentalist groups continue to despise. The appellate court also found no reason to reject the predator zone — which primarily covers parts of the state that are unsuitable for wolves.

It should all be a reminder to Wyoming’s elected officials that judges are not their enemies.

In fact, Wyoming leaders should be the ones advocating for keeping the courts involved, as the state might still be fighting with the federal government over the predator zone if not for a federal judge.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially insisted that the state manage wolves as a trophy animal throughout the state, instead of just the northwest corner. However, the State of Wyoming and others sued, and in 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson of Cheyenne agreed with the state and overruled the agency; Johnson said the service’s rejection of the predator zone concept was arbitrary and capricious.

The following year, Fish and Wildlife came back to Wyoming with a possible compromise: namely, adding a “flex zone” that allows wolves more breathing room for part of the year as they migrate to or from Idaho.

“I guess the genesis of this whole thing would start with Judge Johnson’s decision, when he told the service that their insistence that Wyoming have statewide trophy status for wolves was ‘arbitrary and capricious,’” Steve Ferrell, an adviser to Gov. Matt Mead, told New West at the time.

The state and Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately agreed on a plan — the same one that was upheld by the appellate court in D.C. last week.

Of course, not every court case has a happy ending for Wyoming’s interests, but that’s the way any system works.

We hope last week’s decision makes our Congressional delegation think twice before they make another run at sneaking a provision into an energy bill that would prohibit judicial review of a wolf delisting.

When Montana Sen. Jon Tester and others slipped a rider into a budget bill to delist the wolf in Montana and Idaho (and blocked anyone from challenging the change in court), it certainly was effective. But it’s hard to deny it felt a little dirty. We have a system of checks and balances and short-circuiting a branch of government is simply a terrible precedent.

As Wyoming officials have tried to get a wolf “shortcut” of their own over the years, environmentalists have derided them for not simply coming up with a plan that would stand up in court.

It appears from Friday’s decision, however, that’s exactly what Wyoming’s leaders did — and we think there’s some pride to be had in having done it the right way.

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