Gray wolves to be delisted within 60 days

Apr 22, 2011

Wild Lands plan on hold for now.

In a double win for ranching and recreation interests, Congress last week passed a budget measure that included a rider removing the majority of gray wolves within the Northern Rocky Mountain region from the endangered species list, as well as a second provision which stripped the controversial Wild Lands policy of funding until October.The wolf delisting comes as a huge relief to ranchers, particularly in the states of Montana and Idaho where wolf populations have soared far beyond the 300 individuals that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) originally set as a minimum recovery goal in the mid ’90s. That objective was met in 2002, and wolf numbers have continued to swell ever since, excepting a small dip last year. Most recent numbers put the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population at approximately 1,651 individuals across five states.

Federal wildlife officials have indicated that the wolves will officially be removed from the endangered species list and returned to the management of individual states within 60 days of April 15 when President Obama signed the spending bill into law. Ed Bangs, USFWS wolf recovery coordinator for the Northern Rocky Mountain region, indicated that the delisting will likely happen even sooner.

"It’ll be sooner rather than later," explained Bangs. "We’re shooting to do that as quickly as we can. Folks in (Washington) D.C. are working now to get it done."

Wolves are to be delisted in Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon and Washington, and parts of Utah.

Wyoming wolves were not included in the delisting due to the fact that Wyoming’s wolf plan has not been accepted by USFWS. Wyoming’s plan regulates hunting of the predators in the northwest region of the state, but maintains a shoot-on-sight policy elsewhere. Wyoming continues to work with USFWS to agree on a mutually acceptable plan.

According to the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead was optimistic that the budget provision signals Washington is taking a more realistic approach to wolf delisting, which has become entangled in the courts.

"While I wish Wyoming would’ve been part of that [provision], I think the good news about that is there’s a recognition, at least by some in Congress—and hopefully the president as well—that a congressional fix is needed," Mead explained. "Because from whatever perspective you have, working this process through the court system has not proved fruitful in trying to get on with a management plan for any of the states."

The rider, which has been sharply criticized by environmental and wildlife advocacy groups, received bipartisan backing from Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-ID. In an interview with E & E Daily, Tester emphasized that the wolf delisting did not weaken the Endangered Species Act, but rather was intended to delist a species that by all scientific standards should be viewed as recovered.

"We didn’t amend the Endangered Species Act," Tester explained. "We asked that a recovered species—a species that [USFWS] projected at 300 when it was reintroduced and now is 1,700, be taken off and managed just how we manage elk and mule deer and antelope and everything else."

Wolf activist groups have lashed out at the delisting, however, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent for congressional meddling in species recovery.

In an official statement on the organization’s website, Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen condemned the delisting as a political manipulation of wildlife policy.

"What Congress has done today at the request of Senator Tester and Representative Simpson is unforgivable and marks a low point in the recent history of wildlife conservation," wrote Schlickeisen.

"Congress is selling out America’s wolves, and in the process is also undermining not only one of our greatest wildlife conservation successes, but also the Endangered Species Act, one of the world’s most far-sighted conservation laws. This provision sets a terrible precedent that could be regarded as an invitation to other legislation to strip protections for any other endangered species that a politician finds inconvenient to protect. Grizzly bears, salmon, whales, polar bears, and Florida manatees and panthers are just examples of those that could be at risk."

The delisting comes hard on the heels of a last-ditch attempt by wolf activists to avoid a congressional delisting by crafting a settlement arrangement with USFWS. The settlement would have, in part, reversed an August 2010 decision by Federal District Judge Donald Molloy which returned the entire population of the Northern Rocky Mountain region’s wolves to the endangered species list on the premise that USFWS could not delist the wolves in some states, but not in others. Though the wolf activists won that case, 10 of the original 14 activist groups backpedaled on the decision when the threat of a congressional delisting became immanent. Instead, they sought to settle for a delisting in Montana and Idaho as an interim solution while the remainder of the region (eastern Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and Utah) would be delisted as one area. The settlement, however, was rejected by Molloy when four of the original litigant groups (including Western Watersheds Project) refused to be party to the compromise.

At present, Montana and Idaho are already contemplating plans for a wolf hunt this year to help thin numbers. Both states were forced to cancel hunts last year when Molloy’s August decision put the wolves back on the endangered species list. The congressional delisting, however, will likely prove to be more durable as the provision specifies that the delisting will not be subject to judicial review. This means that the 2009 rule delisting the wolves is legal, and cannot be appealed. However, if in the future, wolf numbers drop below recovery levels, wolves would again be subject to endangered status.

And it appears that Congress’ action may have repercussions beyond the western states. The delisting of the Rocky Mountain gray wolves has apparently emboldened USFWS to recommend that the Western Great Lakes area wolves, which populate Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, also be removed from the endangered species list. According to the USFWS website, wolf numbers total more than 4,000 animals in these three states.

According to a statement by USFWS acting Director Rowan Gould on the agency’s website, "Wolves in the Western Great Lakes have achieved recovery. We are taking this step because wolf populations have met recovery goals and no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. We are asking the public to review this proposal and provide us with any additional information that can help inform our final decision."

The public has 60 days to comment on the decision. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent