"These changes provide a logical transition between management by the federal government and management by the states and tribes."
—Ralph Morgenweck, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Wolves in Idaho and Montana will have to tread a little lighter this year than they have in the 10 years since they were reintroduced to the wilds of Idaho.
Under a new regulation announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday, states, tribes and private property owners will have more leeway and an expanded ability to retaliate when wolves confront livestock, pets or wildlife.
Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will retain their status as an Endangered Species Act listed species. However, state agencies in Idaho and Montana will assume many management responsibilities that have for 10 years been solely the domain of the federal government.
The countdown toward the species' removal from Endangered Species Act listing will not occur until Wyoming joins Idaho and Montana by drafting a wolf management plan acceptable to federal biologists.
Under the new federal rule, landowners in Idaho and Montana will be able to kill wolves without authorization when the predators attack livestock or guard animals on public or private land. State or tribal agencies will be able to kill wolves when they are "determined to be causing unacceptable impacts to wildlife populations."
Those are vast departures from the status quo, in which only federal government officials can legally decide to kill a wolf, and in Idaho they have only done so in response to livestock depredations.
Gray wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho in 1995 and 1996 as nonessential experimental populations. The designation allowed federal, state and tribal agencies and private citizens more flexibility in managing the species while allowing for rapid recovery.
Biologically, wolf recovery was not a problem. Socially, however, it made a lot of waves. Wolves killed livestock on private ranches. Federal agents killed wolves. People on all sides of the issue were, at times, frustrated.
Idaho politicians hailed the Interior Department's announcement Monday as the first step toward total state wolf management.
"While total state management remains the ultimate goal, this new rule gives us an opportunity to assume many of the wolf management responsibilities currently performed by the federal government," Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Steve Huffaker said Idaho is prepared for the transition.
"We look forward to the opportunity to bring all wildlife management together under state leadership," he said.
Idaho's congressional delegation said the decision "validates Idaho's leadership in the conservation of wolves."
"This demonstrates that the Idaho vision for species conservation works: The state does its part, the federal agencies do theirs and together we have a real partnership," said Sen. Mike Crapo. "By putting forward our own conservation plans, we in Idaho have found that the conservation job gets done and property rights are protected at the same time."
Sen. Larry Craig issued a tongue-in-cheek statement indicating he feared Idaho would have even more wolves before all the paperwork is complete.
"Unfortunately, the wolves are breeding faster than the paperwork can be completed," he said. "In Idaho alone, there are approximately 450 wolves, and the population is still growing. I appreciate Secretary Gale Norton's commitment to the recovery of this species and know that state management of wolves will bring about a successful and levelheaded recovery of this 'threatened' species."
The Fish and Wildlife Service explained it this way.
"These changes provide a logical transition between management by the federal government and management by the states and tribes," said Ralph Morgenweck, regional director of the service's Mountain Prairie Region. "State and tribal management under scientifically sound wolf management plans provides effective wolf conservation and will allow the states and tribes to gain valuable management experience in anticipation of delisting."