In Northern Rockies, Wolves Raising Howls
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
Photo by Gary Kramer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceGray wolves like this one no longer are afforded federal protection as an endangered species.
A recent decision by the federal government to lift protections for gray wolves living in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming means the three states now are responsible for managing the animals - and inherit a years-old debate between conservationists and ranchers over what should be done with them.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on March 28 removed the wolves from the federal endangered species list for the Northern Rocky Mountains region - the last part of the country where they had such protection - after finding they had made enough of a comeback to be turned over to the states' control. Inclusion on the endangered species list means animals cannot be hunted.
Idaho , Montana and Wyoming , in turn, have announced management plans that could allow hundreds of the 1,500 wolves estimated to be living there to be killed, including in some areas with few or no restrictions on hunters. About 90 percent of Wyoming , for example, now is considered a "predator zone," where wolves can be shot on sight until the population declines to seven breeding pairs.
The de-listing has infuriated conservationists, who say political leaders in the three heavily agricultural states - where rancher influence is strong - will do little to protect the animals. Ranchers in the region have long opposed wolf protections after enduring years of attacks on livestock and other animals without being allowed to fight back.
The wolves are "staring down the barrel at hostile state management schemes," said Jenny Harbine of Earthjustice , a conservation group that is planning to sue over the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision. At least eight wolves already have been shot dead in Idaho and Wyoming in the days since federal protections were lifted, according to news accounts.
But the federal de-listing has delighted ranchers, hunters and many other residents. State and federal data show that 183 cattle, 213 sheep and 13 dogs were killed by wolves in the three states last calendar year; even more livestock were killed the year before. Ranchers say the prevalence of wolves creates additional costs, not only in terms of livestock lost but in man-hours needed to prevent more attacks.
The de-listing follows a similar move last year in Michigan , Minnesota and Wisconsin , the animals' other primary habitat in the United States outside of Alaska (where they are numerous). Wolf populations in the Great Lakes states are expected to increase under state management, said Laura Ragan, a federal biologist in Minnesota , largely because hunting seasons there have not been approved. But wildlife advocacy groups have filed suit over the federal government's de-listing in those states as well.
Nationally, the gray wolf population has exploded during the past 35 years of federal protection. More than 5,000 wolves today live in the lower 48 states, compared with several hundred living in just two states - Minnesota and a small part of Michigan - when the animals first were listed as endangered in 1973.
States, now in control of the wolves, essentially can manage them as they see fit. But the animals would be re-listed as endangered if their populations fall below 100 in any of the states. Idaho , Montana and Wyoming each have committed to keeping at least 150 wolves, though their management plans probably will allow for many more than that.
The debate over wolves in the Northern Rockies - which has raged for years as the wolf population has steadily increased and the Fish and Wildlife Service weighed whether to de-list the animals - has grown more heated in recent weeks, as states took over management responsibility from the federal government.
It even allegedly came to physical blows in Idaho : The director of an organization known as the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition was arrested last month on charges of assault and battery after reportedly attacking a proponent of protecting wolves.
"People can become so emotional and irrational about wolves," said Ed Bangs, who has found himself at the center of the debate as wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Mont. "After working with the wolf issue, I understand how people burned witches in this country."
In Idaho, which has approved a wolf-hunting season this fall as part of its management plan, conservationists have seized on comments made by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) in January - when he told a group of 300 hunters that he wants to "bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself" - as proof he will not consider their concerns.
Otter has said he wants hunters to kill all but 100 wolves in the state, the most possible before the animal would qualify as an endangered species again. But he since has backed off such rhetoric, and state wildlife managers now say the target population is at least 500 wolves. About 730 wolves now live in the state .
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) also has said he favors a reduction in wolf numbers from the 350 believed to roam the state, though authorities have not specified how big a reduction. The state is planning a hunt near Yellowstone National Park - where most of Wyoming 's wolves live - even as it has declared a year-round open season in most of the rest of the state.
In Montana , which has a former rancher as a chief executive in Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D), the state also has approved wolf hunts that are expected to slightly decrease the current population of about 420. Schweitzer "hasn't been as strident and vocal as the other two governors," but still does not share the view of conservationists, said Doug Honnold, an Earthjustice attorney in the organization's Bozeman , Mont. , office.
As part of their management plans, Idaho and Montana have authorized ranchers and others to shoot and kill wolves that threaten livestock. But conservationists have criticized those measures as well, saying they give overly broad rights to ranchers to kill wolves. In Idaho , for example, Otter last month signed a bill that gives ranchers the authority to kill wolves found to be "molesting" livestock.
"Molesting is expansively defined to mean just about anything conceivable. It's basically unregulated killing of wolves by ranchers," Honnold said.
Despite the rhetoric, compromise also is being sought. Defenders of Wildlife , a conservation group, has offered compensation to ranchers in Wyoming who take steps to coexist with the animals without killing them.
Bangs, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said advocates on both sides of the debate have misrepresented the facts about wolves, and he said the animals are in no danger of becoming extinct. The federal government, he stressed, would immediately take over control of the animals should too many of them be killed, and he said that is something the three independent-minded states would try hard to avoid.
"I can absolutely guarantee you: The states would crawl across broken glass in the desert to not have the feds in their business again," Bangs said.