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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
22 July 2004

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 5, No. 30

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Lawsuit Frenzy over Minnesota's Timber Wolves

by Jerome F. Winzig

According to an article in the July 17 Minneapolis Star Tribune, "After 30 years of protection by the federal government, the timber wolf may soon find out how well it can stand on its own four feet." The article reported on the Interior Department's plans to remove the timber or gray wolf from the endangered species list in the eastern United States because its population has increased significantly in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. This delisting was first proposed in 1998 by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt under the Clinton administration.

In the mid-1960s Minnesota had as between 350 and 500 timber wolves. The 1973 Endangered Species act made them federally protected. In 1978 the Federal Wolf Recovery Plan called for a Minnesota wolf population of 1,251. This plan has been far-surpassed. A 1998 estimate by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports 2,445 wolves in Minnesota. The recovery plan also called for 150 wolves in Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan; today there are about 400 wolves in Wisconsin alone and another 360 in the upper peninsula.

The Interior Department's delisting plan is cautious. The plan, which will take another year to clear the federal bureaucracy, will give control of timber wolves back to the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The federal government will monitor wolf populations in these states for five years after delisting, which takes us to 2010. The new wolf management plans in these states generally call for wolves to be left alone, except near farms and outside northern forest areas. Wolves will be open to more trapping and shooting near areas where livestock or pets have been attacked. Minnesota's plan calls for increased enforcement, creating a method to certify wolf trapping, and hiring another wolf biologist.

It all seems a remarkable environmental success story. But some disagree, vociferously. Ginny Yingling, a volunteer with the Minnesota branch of the Sierra Club and a member of the national organization's wolf roundtable, says, "What this amounts to is an open season on wolves statewide." Open season? The Star Tribune article also mentions the proposed delisting "is expected to result in litigation by environmental groups."

Such litigation is more than expected. Last October, seventeen (yes, 17!) organizations filed a lawsuit against the delisting. They are Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the American Lands Alliance, the Animal Protection Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, Forest Watch, Hell's Canyon Preservation Council, Help Our Wolves Live, the Humane Society of the United States, the Klamath Forest Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Minnesota Wolf Alliance, the Oregon National Resources Council, RESTORE: The North Woods Alliance, Sinapu, and the Wildlands Project.

Some of these organizations are veterans at suing the Interior Department over endangered species, a practice which a 2001 article in the Sacramento Bee called "a specialty niche." The Bee reports that the Center for Biological Diversity alone filed 58 lawsuits from 1994 to 1999, an average of one every 32 days.

Gregory Thomas, president of the Natural Heritage Institute, has said, "Lawyers can be like engineers. The engineering mentality says that if something can be built, it should be built. The legal mentality tends to be that if a case can be brought, it should be brought. But we know, from both engineering and lawyering, that that leads to socially undesirable results. It leads to dams that ought not to be built. And it leads to lawsuits that ought not to be brought."

This legal mentality is not the only reason for such litigation. Another reason is that it's just plain lucrative. According to the Sacramento Bee, the federal government paid out $31.6 million in attorney fees for 434 environmental cases in the 1990s, at rates as high as $150 to $350 an hour. In 1993, three judges on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reduced the fees for one attorney for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now called Earthjustice) to zero for "flagrant over-billing." When Earthjustice won a coho salmon suit, it settled for fees of $383,840, most of it for 931 hours of legal work by one lawyer at $350 an hour.

Dana Joel Gattuso, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, calls this an "environmental litigation craze" and reports that "ESA [Endangered Species Act] lawsuits are so routine that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff spend more time and dollars handling litigation than saving endangered species." In 2000, Clinton's Fish and Wildlife Services Director Jamie Rappaport Clark had to place a moratorium on 25 endangered species under consideration for protection so she could handle a flood of court orders that she called a "biological disaster" and protested that litigation "has turned our priorities upside-down."

Last year, Craig Manson, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, said, "The Endangered Species Act is broken." H added, "Imagine an emergency room where lawsuits force the doctors to treat sprained ankles while patients with heart attacks expire in the waiting room and you've got a good picture of our endangered species program right now."

In the case of Minnesota's timber wolves, this litigation craze is likely to turn an environmental success story into another legal fees bonanza for special interest groups while wasting precious Fish and Wildlife Service dollars and preventing other endangered species from ever being reviewed.

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