Though federal protection for Rocky Mountain wolves was officially reinstated on Tuesday, uncertainty remains about who will be enforcing that protection in Idaho.
Wolves were effectively relisted under the Endangered Species Act due to an Aug. 5 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy. The decision was enforced Tuesday by the publication of a final rule, which officially corrects the gray wolf listing under the act.
Idaho had been listed as the federal government's "designated agent" in wolf management since 2005, meaning that it enforced the federal protection for wolves in the state, but Molloy's ruling negated the state's management plan.
The ruling and the governor's reaction started a chain of events that has led to current confusion over who will be in charge of Idaho's estimated 835 wolves.
In early September, Gov. Butch Otter threatened to withdraw state support for any federal protection efforts unless a management plan could be agreed on between the state and the federal government by Oct. 7, a threat he backed up by a decision on Oct. 19.
In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Otter stated that wildlife management was not a power granted to the federal government at the time of the country's formation, and should be left to the states.
As wolves had been "forced" on the state of Idaho by the federal government, the letter reads, and the state's previously approved management plan had been overturned, Idaho was withdrawing from the issue of wolf management altogether.
"When you put all that time, talent and money into a process that we've proven can manage these predators responsibly, and then the process gets turned on its head, it doesn't behoove us to continue," said Jon Hanian, spokesman for the governor. "The wolves are going to be someone else's problem, not the state of Idaho's."
Wolves are now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, rather than the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. As of Oct. 27, Fish and Game was referring all questions or concerns regarding wolf management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Idaho.
"If we get a report of illegal wolf killing, we will refer it to the Fish and Wildlife Service," department spokesman Ed Mitchell said. "If people are having depredation problems, they need to get in touch with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well."
Calls to the Idaho office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were not returned as of press time.
Killing wolves is still a violation of federal law. Though the state will not investigate wolf killings, such killings will be investigated either by Fish and Wildlife or by an eventually designated agent.
Wolves are the only Idaho endangered species for which the state is not the designated agent. None of Idaho's other endangered species are predators, but the state is the designated agent for the myriad of endangered fish and the mountain caribou protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"In all those cases, we take the lead on management," Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the department will still protect ungulate populations under the 10(j) provision of the Endangered Species Act, which allows states to request wolf kills if the state can prove wolves are having a severe impact on game animals.
There is one pending request for a control action in the Lolo Zone in northern Idaho, a zone which is home to at least 75 wolves that are reducing elk populations in the region, according to an ongoing Fish and Game study.
... then who?
Prior to the state's shouldering the responsibilities of wolf management in 2005, wolves in Idaho were managed by the Nez Perce tribe as the designated agent. The tribe held that position for 10 years, and some wolf advocates feel that tribal management would be an acceptable solution "Everybody appreciated the work of the Nez Perce tribe," said Suzanne Stone, spokeswoman for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. "They did an outstanding job of managing the wolf populations."
Stone said she has put in a call to the Nez Perce tribe to see if it is in a position to volunteer for designated agent status, and a statement released by Otter states that the federal government is currently consulting tribal leaders regarding the issue.
Meanwhile, the governor remains optimistic regarding wolf delisting, and says he stands ready to reinstate Idaho's control over wolves. Four bills introduced in Congress that would exclude wolves from the Endangered Species Act are still in committee, with no indication of that status changing any time soon.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org