Once again, a Montana judge finds himself in the middle of an endangered species debate. This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would appeal a decision that places grizzly bears living in Yellowstone National Park on the endangered species list.

Grizzlies in the park were taken off the endangered species list in 2007, but in 2009 Montana Judge Donald Molloy ruled the giant bears should be given protected status because threats such as climate change had not been considered. In his decision, Molloy also considered the federal government’s oversight of the grizzly recovery to be too “hands-off.”

Now the Fish and Wildlife Service will appeal Molloy’s decision, which is likely to take between a year and 18 months. According to the Department of Interior, nearly 600 grizzlies live in Yellowstone, which is about three times the number of grizzlies that roamed the 3,400-square-mile park when the bears were first protected in 1981. 

As for Judge Molloy, this is the second time in a month that one of his decisions has made the news. Earlier in August, Molloy ruled that wolves in the northern Rockies could not be taken of the endangered species list on a state-by-state basis. For the last two years, Montana and Idaho have been granted the right to regulate their wolf populations after each state’s plan for doing so was approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Wyoming, for its part, had briefly been allowed to manage its wolf population for a few months. This ended after the state went all Yosemite Sam and large numbers of wolves were killed in the months after the Cowboy State took control of managing its wolf population. Shockingly, the federal government swooped in and claimed the Wyoming plan was insufficient. 

Now, all three states are back to square one: the judicial system. While Montana and Idaho are expected to appeal Molloy’s state-by-state decision, Wyoming is appealing its controversial plan. Wyoming’s appeal is being heard on home turf by U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson in Cheyenne. 

In the meantime, ranchers remain concerned that they have little recourse if wolves attack their cattle. In Montana and Idaho the controlled wolf hunts managed by the states have to be put on hold. 

So, thanks to a couple of rulings by Molloy, the American judicial system will soon get to decide how “wild” the West can be. But now that we are in the appeals process, the definition of “wild” will likely be under the microscope.


Related on MNN:

MNN homepage photo: KeithSzafranski/iStockphoto