WY wolf delisted, environmentalists howl lawsuit

News
Sep 7, 2012
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The delisting of the Wyoming gray wolf has a lot of people howling, some in joy, some in horror, and some for blood.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced the removal of the Wyoming gray wolf from the endangered species list Friday, Aug. 31. Wolf management will be turned over to the state under an approved management plan. The wolf’s large population in the northern Rocky Mountain region was cited as the rationale for the delisting. Though ranchers and livestock groups are pleased with this ruling, several environmental groups have already promised to sue over the issue.

The FWS announcement said the repopulation of the gray wolf throughout the U.S. has been one of the few success stories of the Endangered Species Act. Once driven to near extinction across the country, wolves in the northern Rocky Mountain region now number 1,774 adult animals and 109 breeding pairs. FWS describes suitable habitat regions in the northern Rocky Mountain region as occupied by the reintroduced wolves “at, or above, long-term carrying capacity.”

On Sept. 30, Wyoming will join Idaho and Montana as states with state-wide—rather than federal— wolf management plans. The Wyoming management plan, drafted back in September 2011, mimics those of Idaho and Montana and has been approved by FWS.

The rough goal of the plan is to maintain a “recovered, stable, and sustainable population of wolves that is connected genetically to other subpopulations of the Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment.” This entails, at minimum, 100 adult individuals and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation. As of December 2010, the documented Wyoming wolf population outside of those protected areas stood at 243 adults and 19 breeding pairs.

According to the Federal Wolf Recovery Plan, the requirement for wolf delisting in the northern Rocky Mountain area states— Idaho, Montana and Wyoming—is a minimum of 300 adult wolves and 30 breeding pairs distributed fairly evenly across the territory. This was achieved in 2002 and has since been exceeded every following year.

Albert Sommers, a fourth generation rancher in Sublette County, WY, agreed with FWS that it is well past time for the wolf to be delisted.

“It’s obvious to anyone who lives out here that the wolf has reached its criteria levels for delisting. This species was originally supposed to be confined to Yellowstone, but the wolf has spread clear through our county. So absolutely it is time.”

Wyoming’s plan

The state is divided into a number of sections. Aside from the two aforementioned protected areas of Yellowstone and the Wind River Reservation, a trophy hunting territory has been designated surrounding Yellowstone in the northwestern corner of the state.

Inside the trophy game management area, wolf hunts will be regulated as are other trophy game predators. Hunting season will open Oct. 1 with unlimited licenses issued, but the hunt will end once (or if) hunters kill 52 wolves. Hunt records and anecdotal accounts suggest wolf hunts are difficult and wolf kill quotas are rarely met in general hunting seasons.

Outside of this wolf trophy game region, wolves are designated as predator animals and will not be actively managed by FWS though their populations will be monitored. In these predator animal regions, wolves can be killed as such though documentation and the collection of genetic samples are required. Even within the trophy game management area, private citizens may kill a wolf if found in the act of harassing, damaging or killing private property, particularly livestock and domestic animals.

In an effort to provide a buffer and guard against relisting, a stable population of 150 adults and 15 breeding pairs for three years is the population target for Wyoming. If wolf kills in predator areas and hunting threaten the minimum requirement of 100 individuals and 10 breeding pairs, the state will reassess and make adjustments suitable to prevent the relisting of the gray wolf in Wyoming.

Also included in the management plan is information regarding wolf predation of livestock, compensation, and the rights of livestock owners in cases of wolf-caused damage to livestock or other property.

WLJ asked Sommers if he thought the state management plan would meet the needs of ranchers living in wolf areas.

“I think that remains to be seen. It depends on how certain aspects of [the state management plan] are laid out and utilized.”

Sommers explained the situation of cattlemen in his area who graze cattle on public lands just south of the Grand Teton region, calling it an area of chronic wolf predation on livestock for over a decade. He voiced doubts on whether any pack in the area was innocent of preying on cattle but said he had a lot of respect for the federal management plan.

“They are true to their word,” he said, describing how officials operating under the federal wolf management plan could be counted on to remove a pack proved to have repeatedly preyed on cattle.

“Will Wyoming be doing the same? I hope. Is it written into the state management plan as clearly? I’m not sure it is.”

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, had greater confidence in the state management plan. When asked if he thought the state plan would work for ranchers, he said he thought it would be for the most part relative to the reality of living with wolves.

“I can back up to the point that, as ranchers, we didn’t want any wolves. But that’s history now. But given they are here and moving across the state, I’m confident [the state plan] will meet our needs. We’re pretty comfortable with it.”

Magagna went on to compliment the compensation program included in the plan, as well as FWS for keeping their word on delisting the wolf.

Opposition

Environmental and wildlife groups are, of course, opposed to the delisting. The day the announcement was made, the Center for Biologic Diversity (CBD), together with a “coalition of environmental groups,” filed a notice of intent to sue the federal government for delisting of the Wyoming gray wolf.

Particularly onerous to the environmental perspective is the large portion of the state—80-90 percent depending upon report—in which the wolf will be considered a predator. Conservation groups have interpreted the state management plan’s predator animal classification of the wolf as a “shoot on sight” pass which will decimate its population.

“Basically our contention is the Wyoming plan does not sufficiently secure wolves in the state,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at CBD, told WLJ. He pointed out that the current state management plan is very similar to prior versions which were not accepted by FWS.

When asked what the major differences were between the accepted and rejected versions of the plan, Greenwald pointed to a small portion of the trophy game management area south of the Grand Teton National Park. In the rejected versions of the management plan, the area was included in the range of the state where wolves were classified as predators. In the current version, the territory is seasonally a wolf trophy game management area.

“Wyoming’s wolf-management plan is a body blow to wolf recovery in the West,” said Greenwald in the group’s official response to the delisting. “It’ll drastically reduce wolf numbers in the northern Rocky Mountains and cut off further spread of these animals to excellent habitat in Colorado and Utah.”

When asked to expand on this issue—the expansion of wolves into other states which may or may not want them—Greenwald voiced his opinion that the majority of the population does want wolves returned to their historic habitat and that only a small minority does not want them. He spoke at length regarding the ecological benefit of wolves to the environment and other wildlife, as well as the economic boon wolves bring to states in the form of eco-tourism.

CBD and the Defenders of Wildlife are preparing a lawsuit against FWS for the delisting. Though Greenwald pointed out they have not yet initiated the suit, actions will be taken once the delisting order goes into effect.

“We’re concerned about what will happen with the delisting of wolves in Wyoming,” said Greenwald.

Magagna expressed frustration with the move to litigate, though he said he wasn’t surprised as the tactic is common with wildlife groups when governmental agencies delist species.

“We’re disappointed that the same environmental groups are taking the issue to court. This plan represents a strong commitment to keeping [the wolf] here.”

Wyoming isn’t the only state with wolf happenings. In early August, the California Wolf Center petitioned the California Department of Fish and Game to list the gray wolf—only one individual is known to exist wild in the state—as endangered. The department reportedly said the move might be warranted.

In Wisconsin where wolf hunting is legal, a county judge issued a temporary injunction against the use of dogs in wolf hunts. The stay came on the heels of litigation from animal rights groups and individuals in the state claiming dogs used in the pursuit of wolves would be killed by wolves and the practice is therefore inhumane. The hunting season— Oct. 15 through Feb. 23, 2013—will proceed without dogs until the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources assesses the judge’s injunction. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor

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