USFWS reaches agreement with Wyoming concerning wolf plan

Aug 12, 2011

After four years of negotiations, debate and litigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the state of Wyoming have at last reached an agreement that may allow the state to begin managing its wolf population. Announced on Aug. 3, and currently undergoing a period of public review, the new plan agrees to maintain no less than 10 breeding pairs and 100 total wolves statewide, not including those that reside within the borders of Yellowstone National Park. Perhaps most surprising, the agreed-upon plan retains the ‘dual status’ designation that, until now, has been the primary impediment to the animal’s removal from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections within the state. Under the dual status system, wolves within a designated region surrounding the park area will be classified as trophy game animals, a system that will allow for hunting, and, overall, is very similar to the statewide plans implemented by neighboring Idaho and Montana. Throughout the rest of the state, however, wolves will be classified as a predatory animal. Under the predatory classification, wolves may be disposed of by private citizens as necessary, though they will have to report the kill to state authorities.

The landmark agreement represents the first step to ending a battle that has raged between federal and state officials concerning wolf management since 2008. Following the original delisting of gray wolves during that year, each western state was directed to develop plans for wolf management that met with the approval of USFWS. Though Wyoming’s plan was initially approved, approval was revoked following Judge Donald Molloy’s decision to re-list wolves later that same year. Molloy specifically credited the controversial ‘dual status’ plan in Wyoming as playing a major role in his decision, deeming it too aggressive. Following that decision, USFWS officials elected to continue ESA protection of wolves in Wyoming in order to proceed with delisting in Idaho and Montana, a move that allowed the two states to be delisted in 2009. In 2010, however, Wyoming again took center stage in the wolf debate when Molloy ruled that USFWS had no authority to base protection status on state lines or other political boundaries. This decision placed a tremendous amount of pressure on Wyoming, from federal sources as well as neighboring states, to adopt a plan more in line with the ones in place in Idaho and Montana. Wyoming held fast, however, choosing instead to sue the federal government in an attempt to force acceptance of the dual status plan. Despite a district judge’s ruling in late 2010 that USFWS’s decision to deny the Wyoming plan lacked scientific basis, federal protections remained in Wyoming, despite the lifting of restrictions in the other two states earlier this year.

According to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, the announcement, though certainly not the final word on the subject, provides hope of relief for the state’s ranchers and sportsmen. “This is far from the end of this process, but I think we have come up with something that fits with Wyoming’s values and economy,” said Mead in a recent press release. “For years, ranchers and sheep producers have been asked to sacrifice, and they have. We have lost significant numbers of elk and moose, and we have not had a say in the management of an animal inside Wyoming. It is time for that to change, and I appreciate Secretary Salazar and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service working with us. Wolves are recovered in Wyoming; let’s get them off the Endangered Species List.”

“This is far from the end of this process, but I think we have come up with something that fits with Wyoming’s values and economy.”

State officials, however, caution that a long road lies ahead before actual implementation can take place.

Foremost, says Eric Keszler, spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish (WGF), the state’s existing wolf plan must be modified to make the changes agreed upon by USFWS and the governor. According to Keszler, this process is well underway. A draft plan has been written and is currently undergoing a period of public review, scheduled to close on Sept. 9. “USFWS will receive the final plan on Sept. 15 and have pledged to publish a delisting rule in the Federal Register on Oct. 1,” said Keszler. In addition, changes must be made by the state legislature. According to Keszler, many of the major elements of Wyoming’s wolf plan are written into the state law and there will have to be changes at the congressional level. “Wyoming’s next legislative session is not scheduled until this winter,” said Keszler. “Although the governor has discussed convening a special session, those plans aren’t finalized.” Also looming is the unspoken threat of lawsuits from environmental groups who may seek to derail the plan. Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, has already publicly decried the agreement. “This action, if approved, would undo the successful recovery of wolves in the region, which was supported by millions of Americans,” said Stone. “The principles that Gov. Mead and Secretary Salazar have agreed to seem no different than what had previously been proposed by Wyoming and rejected by both the (USFWS) and the courts.” Though no groups have officially threatened to sue, Wyoming officials are preparing for a potential legal battle.

Though the process will take time, and the desired plan is far from assured, Keszler points out that the crucial first steps have been taken. “It’ll take a while, but it’s a good first step in the process,” he says, adding that he credits Mead with taking a lead role in negotiating the plan. “This is mainly due to the efforts of Gov. Mead,” he said. “He’s really made it a priority to work with USFWS and the Department of the Interior to make this thing happen.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent