Governor ends state investigation of wolf kills

Feb 25, 2011

Tensions over the relisted gray wolf were ratcheted up several more notches last week when Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued a blunt statement to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar blasting the government for dallying over resolving the wolf issue. Schweitzer clearly indicated that Montana will begin exercising its authority to protect ranching and hunting interests that are threatened by the ever-expanding population of gray wolves.

"As the governor of Montana, I am profoundly frustrated by the lack of any actual results that recognize Montana’s rights and responsibilities to manage its wildlife," Schweitzer wrote. "Montana has for years done everything that has been asked: adopting a model wolf management plan; enacting enabling legislation; and adopting the necessary implementing rules. Our exemplary efforts have been ignored. I cannot continue to ignore the crying need for workable wolf management while Montana waits, and waits, and waits."

Since the return of the wolf to the federal endangered species list through a federal court ruling in August last year, regulations governing wolf management have reverted from the individual states back to U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS). However, in his Feb. 16 letter, Schweitzer put Salazar on notice that he will be taking "additional necessary steps to protect the interests of Montana’s livestock producers and hunters to the extent that I can within my authorities as governor."

In an exclusive interview with Western Livestock Journal (WLJ), Schweitzer explained that even though the population of gray wolves is technically recovered, states are hamstrung by federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations and so can’t manage expanding wolf numbers.

"Washington, D.C., gave us the authority to begin managing these wolves a couple years ago when it was clear, even by their own rules, that we had a completely recovered and robust population of gray wolves in Montana," said Schweitzer. "And … because of the action of a federal judge … that right was taken away from us. Meanwhile, there’s no
way of controlling the population of wolves in Montana."

In his letter to Salazar, Schweitzer listed three specific ways in which Montana will change its policy regarding wolves. First, although USFWS is now the official manager of the endangered wolf, it delegates its authority to manage wolves to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) through an "interagency cooperative agreement." Though USFWS retains oversight authority, FWP has carried out Montana’s wolf management and law enforcement work on the ground.

The governor’s directive pulls the plug on FWP enforcing federal wolf regulations. Schweitzer specifically ordered FWP wardens to exercise their discretion by not prosecuting, citing, or investigating ranchers in Montana’s northern region—north of Interstate I-90, where wolves are considered endangered—who kill wolves that are attacking or hazing livestock.

Montana wolves found south of the I-90 corridor are considered an "experimental—non-essential" population, and are governed by separate regulations.

The order has caused some confusion over whether ranchers may now legally shoot wolves. Indeed, Schweitzer was quoted by Reuters News Service giving a seeming go-ahead to ranchers to shoot wolves found molesting livestock, stating: "If there is a dang wolf in your corral attacking your pregnant cow, shoot that wolf. And if its pals are in the corral, shoot them, too."

However, Schweitzer later acknowledged to WLJ that it is still illegal for ranchers north of the I-90 corridor to shoot any wolf, clarifying that although FWP wardens will not be investigating wolf shootings, USFWS officials still can.

"If USFW … want[s] to investigate it, … they’re welcome to it, but we’re not. If the federal government is [not] going to … allow us to manage wolves in Montana, then they can use their time and energy to manage the wolves in Montana."

It should be stressed that although FWP personnel have been instructed not to investigate livestock-related wolf killings, ranchers killing federally endangered wolves are still subject to prosecution and fines by federal officials.

By ordering state wildlife officials to not investigate wolf shootings, Schweitzer follows the lead of Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter who last October declared that Idaho would no longer act as the federal government’s "designated agent" for managing wolves under the ESA.

Eyebrows were also raised by Schweitzer’s second wolf policy announcement. In his letter, Schweitzer indicated to Salazar that he would be aggressively addressing depredation by wolves on livestock, by "directing FWP to respond to any livestock depredation by removing whole packs that kill livestock, wherever this may occur."

This statement has since been tempered by Mike Volesky, the governor’s natural resources adviser. In an interview with The Associated Press (AP), Volesky explained that game wardens indeed have "discretion to use whole-pack removal" if this is deemed appropriate. However, the governor’s instructions are not a mandate for the removal of wolf packs.

"The letter probably dealt with the issue inartfully," Volesky was quoted as telling AP. "It’s usually better to leave some discretion to the experts on the ground who can then react to specific circumstances."

Last, Schweitzer wrote that in the Bitterroot Valley where elk herds have been markedly depleted by wolf depredation, he would be "directing FWP, to the extent allowed by the Endangered Species Act, to cull these wolves by whole-pack removal to enable elk herds to recover."

To gain authorization for this action, Montana has submitted a "10j" petition, which, if approved, would grant FWP officials federal clearance to cull wolves, which have heavily impacted the Bitterroot elk.

Schweitzer explained, "We’ve applied for a 10j, and we’ve been assured that that’s going to be approved… [I]t’s going to be immanent, and the 10j would allow us to remove entire packs of wolves that are [preying on elk in Bitterroot Valley]."

Since the wolf’s August relisting, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Oregon have struggled to manage their wolf populations—which now far exceed the original recovery goals—under restrictive ESA regulations. The paradoxical application of the ESA to a fully recovered wolf population has caused outrage, and raised searching questions about the adequacy of the ESA.

"[Wolves are] not an endangered species based on the numbers that have been provided by the Department of Interior and their biologists," Schweitzer told WLJ. "They told us how many wolves we needed, and how many breeding pairs, and we have somewhere between three and five times that many. This is a fully recovered species, and the Endangered Species Act has been misapplied to this species today."

Currently, there are estimated to be approximately 1,700 wolves roaming in these northwestern states. The original recovery number was 300 wolves.

The hope is that Congress will enact legislation allowing for the delisting of the wolf. Schweitzer called on livestock producers to take action by contacting their representatives and pressing for a quick and effective solution to the current wolf stalemate.

"Pick up the phone, call your congressmen and your senators, and say to them, ‘What in the heck is going on?’" advised Schweitzer. "‘No more double-talk. Fix it. We’re not going to take double-talk for an action.’ That’s what they’ve got to do." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent