Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Western wolf delisting looms

Notice of delisting will be published in the Federal Register next week

Express Staff Writer

Sometime next week, the federal government will likely publish its final delisting proposal for gray wolves in the northern Rockies states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to make what is certain to be a historic and equally controversial move regarding the management of wolves in the Northern Rockies sometime next week.

As early as Thursday, Feb. 28, the FWS will publish a delisting notice for the Western gray wolf in the U.S. Federal Register, Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife Suzanne Stone said Sunday.

Under the delisting notice, which won't take effect until 30 days after it's published, gray wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming would lose their protected status under the federal Endangered Species Act. The delisting proposal will also extend to the eastern thirds of Washington and Oregon as well as a small portion of north-central Utah.

Defenders of Wildlife and other groups plan to sue to stop the delisting.

Depending on the success of those appeals, management oversight for gray wolves may be in the hands of state wildlife agencies as soon as this spring, which in turn could mean the beginning of an Idaho wolf hunt as early as this fall.

Wolves have come a long way since 66 of their brethren were reintroduced into the wilds of central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park by the federal government during the winters of 1995 and 1996. Since that time, the wolves have made a remarkable recovery that has even astounded the biologists who first brought them in.

Growing by literal leaps and bounds, the population of gray wolves in the tri-state region of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming has grown to the point at which the wild canines now number more than 1,500. Wolves living in Montana include descendents of those first reintroduced wolves as well as naturally recolonizing wolves that crossed over from Canada into the northern parts of the state beginning in the early 1980s.

The federal government's original reintroduction plan for wolves in the Northern Rockies established a minimum recovery goal of 30 breeding pairs and at least 300 wolves for three consecutive years. The plan further stipulated the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming each contribute a minimum of 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves, a goal biologists say was first attained in 2002.

Not everyone believes the federal government's original recovery goal for the Northern Rockies is enough to sustain wolves long term.

Stone said that allowing states to reduce their wolf populations to the minimum number required under federal law will create isolated populations unable to interact biologically with one another. She said a fully functioning Northern Rockies wolf population should number as many as several thousand.

"We're not even there yet," she said.

Stone said that in their lawsuits, environmental groups will argue that the federal government's original recovery goals as well as the regulatory mechanisms the states have in place for managing wolves will not adequately protect the wild canines once they're delisted.

Especially troubling for environmentalists is Wyoming's management plan, which establishes two different management categories for wolves in the state. On lands immediately surrounding Yellowstone National Park, the state would classify wolves as a trophy game animal, meaning hunting seasons and bag limits would restrict the number of wolves that could be killed. Everywhere else in Wyoming, the state's plan classifies wolves as a predator, meaning they could be shot on sight at any time of the year.

Stone said Wyoming's plan would allow wolves classified as predators to be pursued using barbaric 19th-century practices.

"We didn't restore wolves for that to happen," she said.

In Idaho, the state's draft wolf management plan specifies 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves as the lowest number the wild canines will be allowed to fall to, and further states that "optimal hunting opportunity and flexibility in conflict resolution can be achieved by maintaining more than 20 breeding pairs." The plan classifies wolves as a big game animal throughout all of Idaho.

In recent years, the state's wolf population has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent, according to Fish and Game figures. In 2006, biologists estimated the state's wolf population at 673, with 41 breeding pairs and 72 packs.

Sometime next month, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission will vote on the state's draft wolf population management plan, which sets criteria for wolf hunting in the state for the next five years. The plan ran into a barrage of heavy criticism during a recent public hearing held in Hailey in December.

The plan found greater support in rural communities like Challis, northeast of Ketchum on the opposite side of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains.

Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said he will present the commission at a March 5 meeting with a mockup establishing wolf hunting quotas for the first Idaho wolf hunt.

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