Idaho wolves have officially been removed from federal protection, and the state has swung into action to resume full management of the controversial species.
Congress voted last month to remove wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species Act by approving a rider on the fiscal 2011 federal appropriations bill.
The rider ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reissue a rule published in 2009, which delisted wolves in Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and northern Utah, while wolves in Wyoming remained protected.
The rider marked the first time Congress has removed a species from the list.
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he helped craft the rider because the state of Idaho has proven it can manage wolves effectively.
"No one can rationally argue that the Rocky Mountain gray wolf is still endangered," he said. "[Wildlife] advocates have been intent on listing them in perpetuity. Today we're finally moving past this controversy."
But wolf advocates argue that the controversy is likely not over.
"There will always be people with zero tolerance for wolves," said Garrick Dutcher, program manager for Ketchum-based Living With Wolves. "Returning management to the state should certainly help reduce the tension in the issue, but it will not eliminate it."
Wolves were officially delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009.
However, that action was overturned by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy last August, when he ruled that species must be delisted as biological population groups rather than along state lines.
The budget rider overturned Molloy's decision and insulated the 2009 rule from further legal challenge.
Officials say the removal is justified because wolves in the region have, in fact, recovered and are no longer in need of protection.
"The recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. "The gray wolf's biological recovery reflects years of work."
Gov. Butch Otter lauded the service's decision yesterday, saying Idaho has always managed wolves responsibly, despite not supporting reintroduction from the beginning.
"We didn't want them here at all," he said, adding that the relatively low numbers originally proposed helped the state support the plan. "They said, 'Don't worry about it, because you will only have 100 wolves.' It is estimated we have over 1,700. So we have far exceeded their expectations."
John Hanian, spokesman for Otter, said the governor was referring to the number of wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Current estimates place the population of wolves in Idaho at a minimum of 705, though Idaho Department of Fish and Game Big Game Manager John Rachael told the Idaho Statesman that he believes the number is closer to 1,000.
Conservationists say they are disappointed by Congress, but are cautiously optimistic about state management.
"Wolves can still have a bright future in the Northern Rockies if states manage them responsibly as they have promised in the past," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of national wildlife advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife.
Dutcher, too, said he hopes the state will be able to manage the species responsibly, choosing population goals based on the land's capacity to support the species rather than on political pressures.
"Hopefully we can see the rhetoric die down and the emotionally driven conflict subside to a point where logic prevails," he said.
Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he'd ensure the state's wolf population would remain well over 150, to avoid the risk that the federal government would consider reinstating protections.
Otter said the Fish and Game Commission is developing a state management plan similar to the one issued in 2008, which set the state wolf population goal at 518 to 732 wolves.
Quotas for a wolf hunt could be set as early as the commission's July meeting, with the seasons for other big game.
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