Wolf Comeback Has Wyoming Officials Howling
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
Gray wolves roam the Northern Rockies by the hundreds just eight years after federal wildlife officials reintroduced them into a habitat where they had been hunted into near extinction more than 70 years ago.
One of the first species to be placed on the endangered species list when it was created in 1972, wolves are now plentiful enough in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming that they no longer need federal protection.
Many Westerners, in fact, now consider wolves a threat to livestock and big game. A showdown over how to handle the wolf population is putting the federal government at loggerheads with Wyoming, which is refusing to back down on a plan to allow the unregulated killing of wolves outside of national parks.
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) has ordered the state to prepare a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's rejection in January of the state's wolf management plan. The state argues that the federal agency ignored a review by its own scientists in which a majority agreed the plan would be adequate.
The action comes after the Wyoming Legislature adjourned Monday (March 8) without considering changes to the wolf plan that would have satisfied federal officials, leaving the state few options other than litigation.
"The feds have circled the wagons, and we've circled the wagons. But we feel like we're standing on stronger legal ground," said Ryan Lance, the governor's chief advisor on endangered species.
The lawsuit, expected to be filed in federal court in Wyoming as soon as next week, will seek to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt Wyoming's plan and begin the process of removing wolves from federal protection.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the federal government by wolf foes and advocates alike, but Wyoming's would be the first legal challenge mounted by a state.
The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas is touted as a great conservation success, ranked next to preservation of the bald eagle. The success prompted downgrading of wolves from "endangered" to "threatened" on the nation's endangered species list in 2003. Under this classification, wolves can be removed from federal protection and placed in state care if the U.S. government accepts the wolf management plans in the three main states where wolf packs roam: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Fish and Wildlife already has approved Montana's and Idaho's plans.
If Wyoming pursues its court challenge, legal experts say the process of removing wolves from the endangered species list in all three states could be delayed more than five years. This is bad news for state wildlife officials anxious to take over responsibility for dealing with problem wolves that prey on livestock or threaten prized big-game animals, such as elk and moose.
"Obviously it would have been our preference if Fish and Wildlife and Wyoming could have reached an agreement, but in the absence of that we've tried to respect Wyoming's need to develop a plan that's acceptable to Wyoming's people," said Chris Smith, chief of staff for the director of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
In rejecting Wyoming's plan, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams in Washington, D.C., said his agency could not accept provisions that would allow wolves outside the national parks to be killed on sight. He also voiced concern over how many wolf packs the state was committed to managing.
The controversial provision in Wyoming's plan would designate wolves as "predatory animals" outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, meaning those wolves could be killed at any time and by any means. Idaho's and Montana's plan would allow only limited hunting of wolves, such as those known to be harassing livestock and pets.
Wyoming's "predator" status would put wolves ranging outside of Yellowstone about one-third of the state's 243 wolves - in the same class as coyotes, stray cats, jackrabbits, porcupines, raccoons and skunks so-called "pests" that can be killed without regulation. Stricter protections would kick in if wolf numbers dropped below recovery standards.
"Delisting is not going anywhere until Wyoming changes the predatory status of wolves," said Ed Bangs, the federal wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service who is based in Helena, Mont.
Although reintroduction and recovery of wolves, which began in 1995 and 1996, has been a long and contentious process for all states involved, the battle has been fiercest in Wyoming, observers say. Wolves have been migrating from Canada into parts of northern Montana and Idaho for more than 20 years. But when federal officials began relocating wolves in Yellowstone National Park, which is mostly in Wyoming, local resistance was fierce.
"The folks in Wyoming are decent people. But what they saw was the damn feds forcing wolves down their throats, and the rhetoric and emotions got way out of hand," Bangs said.
Despite warnings dating back to 2002 that Fish and Wildlife likely would reject any state plan allowing the unregulated killing of wolves, Wyoming officials said they expected their plan to pass muster after a federally appointed panel of wolf experts deemed it adequate.
Last fall, the Fish and Wildlife Service had 11 wolf experts review all three state plans. Ten of the experts said that the three state plans together appeared to be adequate for sustaining wolf populations if federal protections were lifted.
A key part of Wyoming's lawsuit will hinge on the wolf panel's report and a provision of the Endangered Species Act that requires all decisions to be based on the best available science. The lawsuit will argue that the federal agency violated this provision by rejecting Wyoming's plan.
According to Lance, Deputy Assistant of the Interior Paul Hoffman told Wyoming officials last month that his department rejected the state's wolf plan because the "predator" label likely would be challenged by wolf advocates and could be overturned in court.
"Legally, they didn't think they could get (Wyoming's) plan to fly," Lance said. "They have heartburn over the word predator' because they've got doubts Wyoming's plan could pass muster if it's challenged in some East Coast federal court."
A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that Secretary Gail Norton and director Williams would not comment on potential litigation. But Bangs, who recommended to Williams that Wyoming's plan be rejected, defended the agency's stance.
"If they (Wyoming officials) feel they've been wronged, then there's nothing wrong with going to court about that," Bangs said. "But I think when they look at the record, they'll see that it was pretty clear early on we would reject anything with a predator status."
With Wyoming at an impasse over its wolf plan for the foreseeable future, fish and wildlife officials have proposed giving Idaho and Montana more freedom to regulate their wolf populations meanwhile.
If approved, new rules would allow Idaho and Montana officials and landowners to kill wolves that are harassing livestock or pets, or pushing game herds below minimum levels.
"Are we just picking on Wyoming here? No," Bangs said. "Folks like to say that Ed Bangs is a jerk for throwing out (Wyoming's plan), but the truth is the Wyoming plan just wasn't up to snuff."