Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wolves are back on the list

Decision likely ends planned northern Rockies wolf hunts, at least for this fall


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Jason Husseman, Idaho Department of Fish and Game

A federal judge in Montana has ordered gray wolves in the northern Rockies be returned to protected status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The decision likely means that hunters in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will not be heading to the hills this fall in pursuit of the wily predators. That includes Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who has said he would like to bid on the chance to be the first to shoot a wolf when the state opens its first wolf-hunting season.

In his decision Friday, July 18, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granted a preliminary injunction that immediately restores the ESA protections for wolves. Back in March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially delisted from the ESA gray wolves living in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the eastern halves of Washington and Oregon and northern Utah.

Molloy will eventually decide whether the injunction should be made permanent.

Otter spokesman Mark Warbis said Friday that the state will be carefully considering its options in light of the decision.

"The governor disagrees with the decision and is disappointed," Warbis said. "The wolf population in Idaho is strong. Idaho has developed a sound and responsible plan for managing wolves to maintain a sustainable population."

Since 1995 and 1996, when 66 wolves were reintroduced into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, the wolf population in the northern Rockies has grown to some 2,000 animals.

After the delisting, 12 conservation groups, including Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, sued to have the controversial decision reversed. The groups claimed, among other things, that state regulations will not adequately protect wolves and allow them to interbreed with wolves living in the other states.

On that score, Molloy seemed to agree with the conservationists.

In particular, the judge said the Fish and Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily in delisting the wolf despite a lack of evidence of genetic exchange between sub-populations in the three states.

The judge seemed particularly concerned with the approval by the Fish and Wildlife Service of Wyoming's 2007 state management plan even though it still contained provisions that the agency had earlier deemed inadequate. Before that reversal, Fish and Wildlife Service officials had indicated they would proceed with delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana, but exclude Wyoming from the action until they came up with a more satisfactory plan.

More than three-quarters of Wyoming is designated as a predator zone under the plan approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service. In the predator zone, which excludes remote U.S. Forest Service lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park, hunters are allowed to kill wolves on sight at any time of the year.

The federal agency acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it approved Wyoming's management plan despite the state's failure to commit to managing for 15 breeding pairs and the "plan's malleable trophy game area," Molloy said.

"In both instances, the Fish and Wildlife Service altered its earlier position without providing a reasoned decision for the change based on identified new information."

Molloy's decision is only a temporary move intended to stop the accelerated killing of wolves in the tri-state area since the delisting, which conservationists claim is proof the states are not ready to take over management of the species. Barring a successful appeal of Molloy's decision, the reinstatement of ESA protections for the northern Rockies gray wolf will stand until a final resolution is made on the larger question of whether the Fish and Wildlife Service acted properly in delisting the wolf.

The conservation groups also argued that wolf numbers would plummet if hunting were allowed later this fall. They sought the injunction in the hopes of stopping the hunts and allowing the wolf population to continue expanding.

In Idaho alone, as many as 428 wild gray wolves would have been allowed to die this year under a plan approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission in Jerome in late May. During the meeting, Fish and Game biologists said Idaho likely has as many as 1,000 wolves spread throughout the state's vast backcountry and rural areas.

The 428 wolves Fish and Game commissioners would allow to die this year was 100 more than originally proposed by staff biologists with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game prior to the much-anticipated meeting. Both tallies—the level proposed by Fish and Game staff and the higher number approved by the politically appointed commissioners—would represent all wolf deaths in the state this year. It would include deaths from natural causes, accidents, wolf control actions and hunter kills.

But, in light of Molloy's decision, those wolf fatality figures will no longer matter, at least as far as this year's Idaho wolf management goes. Conservationists, no doubt elated by the late-breaking news on Friday, expressed relief that wolves throughout the tri-state region will not face hunting pressure, including close to home in Blaine County.

"We're delighted those wolves will be saved," said attorney Doug Honnold with Bozeman, Mont.-based Earthjustice, who argued the case before Molloy on behalf of 12 conservation groups.

Thrown into limbo are the states' preparations for the pending wolf hunt this fall.

Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said his agency had delayed the start of tag sales for the state's first wolf hunt while Molloy's decision was pending. Rules approved by Fish and Game commissioners in May would have allowed Idaho hunters to pursue wolves from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31.

To read an in-depth story about living with the wolf in Idaho, pick up a copy of the Sun Valley Guide Summer 2008 edition at newsstands or by going to www.svguide.com.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)




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