From: John Miller, Associated Press
Published December 20, 2006 12:00 AM

Feds to Start Removing Wolf Protections

BOISE, Idaho — The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday his agency will start removing federal protections from gray wolves in Montana and Idaho by January, regardless of whether Wyoming has submitted an acceptable plan to manage its own wolves by then.


Wyoming's plan is tied up in lawsuits, and Fish and Wildlife Director Dale Hall said his agency is moving ahead with Idaho and Montana, where management plans are already in place.


Defenders of Wildlife, which advocates on behalf of wolves, vowed to fight the move, saying delisting by state is illegal.


Wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains a decade ago after being hunted to near-extinction, and now number more than 1,200 in the region. With the rising population, state officials including Idaho Gov. Jim Risch and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have been pushing the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Endangered Species Act protections that the officials say hamper control efforts aimed at stopping the predators from eating livestock, as well as elk that are prized by hunters.


"They will be managed just as cats (cougars) and black bears are managed," said Risch, following a meeting Tuesday with Hall in Boise. "Certainly, there will be a reduction from what there is right now. Because of the explosion in numbers, they've got to be controlled."


The region where wolves would no longer have federal protections would include all of Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington and Oregon and a small sliver of northeastern Utah. Wolves that wander outside those areas would still fall under federal protections, said Mitch King, a Fish and Wildlife Service regional director in Denver.


Under the federal plan, states could have complete oversight of their wolves within 12 months, Risch said.


Idaho is estimated to have 650 wolves in about 60 packs, while Montana has 270 and Wyoming 309.


After delisting, Idaho's federally approved wolf-management plan requires maintaining a minimum of 15 packs, while Montana has a benchmark of 15 breeding pairs.


Both states already have most day-to-day oversight of their wolves; sanctioned control actions every year kill dozens of the predators suspected of killing or harassing cattle. Still, Idaho and Montana lack the authority to schedule legal hunts or kill wolves for reasons such as helping restore elk herds.


Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that has paid $700,000 since 1987 to ranchers hit by wolf predation, underscored its argument that delisting by state, rather than by the entire region including Wyoming where the wolves now roam, violates the Endangered Species Act and would undermine the integrity of wolf recovery plans.


"I would expect to see conservation groups fighting this," said Suzanne Stone, a group spokeswoman in Boise. "Everybody is hoping we get to delisting. But the factors that caused the initial eradication of wolves in the region have to be addressed before delisting. We're not there yet."


Hall said his agency concluded it needed to move forward with delisting to reward states like Idaho and Montana that have significant numbers of wolves, as well as management plans in place.


"Our attorneys are very comfortable with this," Hall told The Associated Press. "This is happening because it's the right thing to do. It's tied to all of us trying to make the Endangered Species Act work the way it's supposed to work."


If Wyoming lawmakers pass an acceptable plan next year, federal protections could be lifted there, too, Hall said.


The federal government so far has rejected Wyoming's proposal, concerned that it doesn't do enough to keep wolf numbers there from plummeting again. Wyoming's plan calls for leaving the animals alone in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, allowing trophy hunting next to the parks -- and allowing wolves elsewhere to be shot on sight as predators.


In an effort to end the impasse, Hall on Monday met with Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal to discuss issues such as expanding the areas set aside for trophy hunting.


Freudenthal called the meeting "great progress from where we were" but pledged to continue Wyoming's legal fight.


Hall also met Monday with Schweitzer, who called their discussion constructive.


Source: Associated Press


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