Though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is still searching for an agency willing to monitor much of Idaho's wolf population, federal officials say there's no hurry because not much monitoring occurs in the fall.
"We're in the time of year when we can be more patient than we could otherwise be," said Brian Kelly, field supervisor for the service's Idaho office.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service has the authority to appoint a "designated agent" to monitor a species that is listed as threatened or endangered. The state would be able to manage wolves without federal oversight if wolves were delisted.
For the moment, Fish and Wildlife has reclaimed sole responsibility for management of Idaho's estimated 835 wolves following Gov. Butch Otter's withdrawal of state support for wolf management last month. It is now sorting though the transfer of responsibility from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which previously monitored and controlled Idaho wolves. Still, it hasn't found an agency willing to collar, track and count wolves throughout the state.
The law doesn't require a designated agent, but Kelly said the service would prefer that the state take on that role. Designation allows a state to carry out monitoring and control actions without specific approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"[The state is] then better poised to assume those roles when wolves are delisted," he said.
The Nez Perce tribe currently monitors about half of the state's wolves. The tribe was listed as the sole designated agent for Idaho's wolves from 1995 until 2003, when the state shouldered some responsibility before becoming the officially designated agent in 2006.
Kelly said Fish and Wildlife could monitor the rest of the state's wolves, but the service could also hire a university or other outside agency to collect data.
He said the important thing is to find an organization willing to monitor wolves before information is compromised.
"We don't want to create a gap in our information," he said. "That's really important to have as we work toward delisting."
Wolves may not currently be monitored statewide, but "problem" wolves, or wolves that threaten or kill livestock, are being managed by Wildlife Services. This federal agency, despite the similarity in name to the Fish and Wildlife Service, is a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of the Interior. Wildlife Services has the authority to kill wolves that are threats to humans, livestock or game populations.
Delisting is at the top of the service's list of priorities, Kelly said, because Idaho wolves have clearly surpassed the target population of 10 breeding pairs. But neither Montana nor Idaho is sitting idly by and waiting for delisting to occur.
While Idaho has relinquished all state responsibility for wolves and expressed support for pending federal legislation to exclude the species from the Endangered Species Act, Montana state legislators have taken the opposite tack.
A bill in development by Montana State Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, declares that the federal government "lacks authority to impose wolves on Montana." The bill was previously introduced during the 2009 legislative session, but died in committee.
The bill is essentially a riff on the states' rights argument Otter has made since U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy relisted wolves under the Endangered Species Act in August. Otter has repeatedly claimed that wildlife management is not an "enumerated power" delegated to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution and states should have the right to manage wildlife without federal interference.
"The states' rights issue is the most winnable issue we have on wolves," Balyeat told The Missoulian newspaper last week.
Winnable or not, the bill's legality is questionable.
"It's not [constitutional]," said Andrew Wetzler, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council's wildlife program. "It's a fantasy to create a world in which states can do whatever they want."
Otter was unavailable for comment regarding his opinion of the Montana bill, but Wetzler did not seem to regard the bill as a serious piece of legislation.
"It's a stunt," he said. "Any person who spent five minutes in law school would know it's a stunt."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who are you going to call?
Now that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is no longer involved with wolves, concerned citizens need to contact federal agencies with wolf issues.
- In case of livestock depredation, call U.S. Wildlife Services at (866) 487-3297.
- With other questions, concerns or sightings, call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at (877) 661-1908.