Settlement may return wolf management to states

Mar 25, 2011

The U.S. Department of the Interior and 10 environmental groups have reached an agreement to no longer designate gray wolves in Idaho and Montana as endangered and to allow for them to be hunted in those states.

While supported by some wildlife advocates, other conservation groups oppose the controversial settlement. It was generally hailed by U.S. congressmen and livestock groups in Idaho and Montana where cattle and sheep have been decimated by the marauding carnivores.

Nearly 1,300 wolves were counted in Montana and Idaho recently by state, federal and tribal biologists. A 2008 Idaho Department of Fish and Game plan sets a goal for wolves in Idaho at slightly more than 500. Idaho’s wolf population is estimated at 705 wolves, a 19 percent drop from 2009.

After the proposed settlement was filed March 18 in U.S. District Court in Montana, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said March 22 that he’s more optimistic that Wyoming and federal officials also can reach an agreement to remove wolves in Wyoming from the federal endangered species list, which would be a full delisting of the species across the entire distinct Northern Rockies population segment.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said there is a sense of urgency to strike a deal before U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in Montana approves the settlement lifting protections for the Idaho and Montana wolves and permitting hunting. Molloy could rule on the issue within a week when he has a hearing on another wolf case.

Since the wolves were introduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, their populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have grown to about 1,700 following a 15-year, $30 million federal restoration effort.

The settlement hammered out by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and environmentalists hopes to resolve years of litigation while wolves in the Northern Rockies have proliferated.

Environmental proponents of the accord were motivated to resolve the issue as a way to preempt western Republicans who are pushing for the wolves to be delisted as endangered nationwide. That would, they fear, set a precedent to broadly undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with an adverse impact on imperiled animals, fish and vegetation nationwide.

If approved by a federal judge in Montana, the deal would keep the wolf species on the endangered list in Wyoming, Utah, Washington and Oregon where they are considered most vulnerable, yet growing.

It also calls for USFWS to establish a scientific panel to re-examine wolf recovery objectives seeking a minimum 300 wolves in the region, which critics say is far too inadequate. Western ranchers and hunters alike resent livestock and elk herd attacks by the wolves.

The Idaho Cattle Association (ICA) responded by stating: "Although the full details of the agreement are yet to emerge, the Idaho Cattle Association is initially pleased that wolves in Idaho will soon return to delisted status. As we have maintained for years throughout the roller coaster ride of listing/delisting/relisting, it is nonsensical to argue that wolves are still in need of federal protections with their rapid rate of expansion and obvious resilience."

ICA noted Idaho has proven it is willing and able to properly manage the wolves and keep their populations at appropriate levels.

"The environmental groups have been, up to this point, completely disingenuous as they have repeatedly broken promises related to wolf population goals. It is apparent that they have realized that they have foolishly overplayed their hand in forcing the continued listing of a species that has long surpassed recovery goals."

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-MT, said, "I’m for any plan that will put wolves back under Montana’s control where they belong. I’ve pushed Secretary Salazar and the Department of Interior to resolve this issue, and I’m pleased they’re responding. This is a step in the right direction, but the fight isn’t over. I won’t stop until we find a common sense solution to Montana’s wolf problem that brings certainty to our ranchers, farmers and hunters."

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-ID, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Nez Perce Tribe, ranchers and outdoor enthusiasts have diligently worked to make Idaho’s wolf recovery successful. Crapo advocates legislative solutions to return wolves to state management control.

"Idahoans have gone beyond what is required to ensure that wolves are removed from federal management," Crapo said. "While I appreciate the Secretary’s leadership and the hard work that has been put into this settlement, I remain concerned about doing this administratively. The only way to solve this problem is through a legislative delisting of the wolf."

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-ID, who chairs the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said, "There is no doubt in my mind that the states, not the federal government, should be managing these animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service made the right decision in delisting wolves and returning management authority to the states. Idaho and Montana have effective, approved plans in place for managing wolves and should regain control over management.

Legislation to remove ESA protection for wolves, sponsored by Simpson and Montana’s two Democratic senators, was likely to pass Congress.

Simpson said he was concerned the settlement could have a negative impact on Oregon, Washington and Utah, which were not part of the original reintroduction area. About 40 wolves have moved into Oregon and Washington in recent years. Some have estimated 1,000 wolves could be seen in those states in 20 years, with packs moving into Nevada, Utah and California, repopulating the West.

"Wolf populations have grown so robustly that they are spilling over into other states, and those states should continue to have the flexibility to manage these populations. This settlement proposal makes it clear to me that those who have forced wolves back on the endangered species list realize that their position is not defensible. They also realize that if they continue to push to have wildlife management decisions made by the courts, Congress will step in."

Four environmental groups that had been co-plaintiffs in the case disagreed with the settlement. Earthjustice withdrew from representing most of the plaintiffs, citing ethical obligations, but three of the four groups have hired new lawyers. Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Jon Marvel said the conservation groups that agreed to the settlement "should be ashamed for giving up the fight to protect the wolves."

Marvel said his group will ask Molloy to reject the agreement rather than reverse a ruling he made last summer that reinstated wolf protections in Idaho and Montana. Molloy is set to become a senior judge in August, but will continue to carry a full case load, his office said.

Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis said the agreement is "a wolf in sheep’s clothing," with no guarantee lawsuits will not continue. U.S. Wyoming Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, along with Lummis, have vowed to continue pushing for wolf delisting in Wyoming. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said wolf hunting could begin in his state as soon as this fall if the settlement holds.

The 10 conservation groups that have agreed to the settlement are Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club and Wildlands Network. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent