Wyoming wolves on track for delisting

Oct 14, 2011

The road to delisting the grey wolf across the northern Rocky Mountain region has been long and torturous, and nowhere more so than in the state of Wyoming. Now, it seems that Wyoming’s luck may be on the brink of changing.

On Oct. 4, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed that the wolf be delisted in Wyoming on the basis on ongoing negotiations between Wyoming Gov.

Matt Mead and the Department of Interior. The delisting is anticipated to happen sometime next year, and is contingent upon the Wyoming Legislature passing several elements of the newly revised Wyoming Wolf Management Plan into law.

“After years of hard work by the Fish and Wildlife Service and our partners to achieve the successful recovery of wolves in the northern Rockies, Wyoming wolves are ready to stand on their own under the management of the professional wildlife biologists of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe in a prepared statement.

“We expect Wyoming’s wolf population will be maintained well above recovery levels under state management, and we have worked with the state to develop a strong post-delisting monitoring and management plan to ensure that this remarkable conservation success endures for future generations,” Ashe added.

Wyoming has twice been passed over for wolf delisting in recent years, its bold wolf plan—which allowed for unregulated “shoot on sight” killing of wolves in much of the state—proving to be a nettlesome sticking point. In 2009, when the wolf was broadly delisted by FWS across the Northwest, it remained an endangered species in Wyoming since, according to FWS, the Wyoming Wolf Plan did not provide enough protection to ensure a stable wolf population. In 2010, a lawsuit brought by environmental groups resulted in the wolf being relisted across the West because as Wyoming Federal District Judge Donald Molloy maintained, the wolf could not legally be delisted in other states if it remained endangered in Wyoming.

But when wolves were forcibly delisted this year by an act of Congress, Wyoming and its controversial wolf plan were again left out in the cold.

But with Wyoming ranchers and sportsmen howling for relief from a growing wolf population, the state has been actively pursuing a compromise that it now expects will result in regaining management of the large predators within the coming year.
“It’s probably going to be next summer at the earliest,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Public Information Officer Eric Keszler.
The centerpiece of the agreement is a newly revised wolf plan which contains several critical changes from the original.
According to Keszler, two key changes involve the minimum number of wolves Wyoming is required to maintain, and the boundary of the “Wolf Trophy Game Management Area,” a region in which hunting of wolves will be allowed but closely regulated.
According to the new plan, Wyoming will have to maintain a total of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in the state, with 100 individuals and 10 breeding pairs being maintained outside the boundaries of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and the nearby National Elk Wildlife Refuge, all of which are located in the northwest corner of the state. The remaining balance of 50 wolves and 5 breeding pairs will be maintained within the National Parks and Refuge.
Wolves within the Parks and Refuge will continue to enjoy ongoing federal protection. Surrounding them, however, the revised wolf plan calls for a special “trophy game management area (TGMA).” The TGMA gives wolves leaving the protected National Parks and Refuge an additional layer of protection since wolves in the TGMA will be treated as trophy game animals, and hunting will be strictly regulated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department within the area.
The revised plan also indicates that the boundaries of the TGMA will be flexible—annually expanding in mid October to allow for wolf migration patterns—and returning to their original location on March 1.
Yet the part of the plan most likely to attract the attention of critics is its treatment of wolves in the remaining part of Wyoming, which comprises the vast majority of the state. According to the plan, outside the federally managed Parks and Refuge and the surrounding TGMA, wolves will be classified as a predator animal, meaning that outside of those specific areas, there are no controls on shooting wolves.
According to the revised plan, in areas where wolves are classified as predators “[a] wolf can be taken at any time, for any reason,” said Keszler, noting that there are reporting requirements if a wolf is killed.
Keszler also emphasized that the plan is not yet in effect; until it gains full approval, wolves are still federally protected across all of Wyoming.
Despite the proposed “shoot on sight” policy across the vast majority of Wyoming, agency personnel are confident that the revised plan, provided it is approved, will allow ample protection for the wolf, which has experienced an astonishing rebound since its 1995 reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park.
FWS spokesperson Chris Tollefson explained that the strength of the plan is that the protected areas in Wyoming’s northwest corner actually represent the core habitat for wolves within the state.
“We’ve got the bulk of the existing population and the bulk of suitable wolf habitat in Wyoming encompassed by either the core areas of Yellowstone National Park or Grand Teton National Park, as well as the National Elk Refuge, or the Trophy Game Management Areas surrounding those areas where there will be limited … hunting of wolves,” Tollefson explained.
A statement by Ashe concurred:
“Collectively, this [protected] area encompasses nearly all of Wyoming’s current wolf breeding pairs, the vast majority of the suitable habitat, and is large enough to maintain Wyoming’s share of a recovered wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains,” he stated.
Not surprisingly, however, FWS’s announcement that it is hoping to approve Wyoming’s revised plan drew criticism from wildlife activists.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, slammed the federal agency in a press release for its efforts to approve a plan that “permits unmanaged wolf killing across the vast majority of the state” and “perpetuates the notion that wolves are unwanted predators.”
“Our country has spent decades restoring these animals because they are vital to maintaining balanced ecosystems and a healthy environment,” Rappaport Clark stated. “We can’t achieve full recovery by relegating wolves to one corner of the state. This plan does an extreme disservice to all the hard work that’s been done to bring wolves back from near extinction and could reverse the many benefits they bring to the landscape.”
Yet Tollefson rejected the suggestion that full recovery of the species required a Wyoming-wide wolf population.
“The role of the Endangered Species Act is to prevent the extinction of species and bring them back from the edge of extinction, and we’ve accomplished that here,” Tollefson explained. “We have a recovered population. …It’s certainly not in the mandate of the Act that wolves will need to be restored across their entire historic range before they can be taken off the endangered species list.”
There are currently more than 1,650 wolves, 244 packs and over 110 breeding pairs of wolves across the northern Rocky Mountain region, according to FWS data. The wolf has exceeded recovery goals for 11 consecutive years.
FWS is presently soliciting scientific and public opinion on its proposal to approve Wyoming’s wolf plan. Instructions on how to submit comments can be found on the FWS website: www.fws.gov. Comments are due on or before Jan. 13, 2012.
Tollefson is optimistic that the approval process is moving forward. With persistence, cooperation, and a bit of luck, it is likely that next year, Wyoming will be managing its wolves for the first time since they were reintroduced 16 years ago.
“It’s really important for the future of wolves, and for the future of the Endangered Species Act, for us to keep our commitment with the American people—that we establish recovery goals, and when they are met and exceeded, we move forward and get species off the list,” Tollefson observed. “…It’s long past time to get the wolf off the list and return management to the states.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent