Wyoming lawmakers are getting a lot of bad advice from some ranchers and others about what the state should do with its wolf management plan.
Anyone who was surprised by a federal judge's ruling last week vacating the federal delisting order for gray wolves in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho hasn't been paying attention. No one who has followed the saga of this state's wolf plan should have expected it to pass muster when its key component was challenged in court by a dozen conservation and animal rights groups.
Why? Because Wyoming's dual classification for wolves wasn't a balanced approach that either the state or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could justify. Wolves received protection as trophy game animals in the Yellowstone area, and could be killed by licensed hunters. But anywhere else in the state, the animals were deemed predators that could be shot on sight, without limits, by anyone for any reason. Many wolves were killed in the weeks after the state's plan went into effect, prompting the groups' request for a temporary injunction that was issued.
Wolves in both Montana and Idaho are classified everywhere as trophy game animals. After refusing to accept Wyoming's plan, the federal government suddenly reversed course earlier this year and approved it. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Montana noted that the agency never offered any justification for the change.
Now, Wyoming has three options:
* It can do nothing and watch Fish and Wildlife likely reject its plan.
* It can change the state laws that govern wolf management in an attempt to create a plan that will withstand any legal challenges.
* It can sue the federal government in an effort to make it accept the state's existing plan.
The goal should be to get wolves delisted from the federal Endangered Species Act as soon as possible. Only the second option above has a chance to accomplish that.
Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, will offer a bill that gets rid of the predator management zone, in favor of classifying wolves as trophy game throughout the state. Passage of the bill would address one of the main points of Molloy's ruling.
At a meeting of the Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee in Cody last week, the panel heard from several ranchers and livestock industry spokesmen who encouraged the state to sue the feds over its plan. That idea has the support of state Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, who incorrectly described the dual status for wolves as "paramount" and urged the committee not to try to appease "some left-wing judge."
But no federal judge is likely to OK a plan that makes it open season on a species that had until recently been deemed worthy of federal protection.
The idea that predator status is necessary to keep wolves from killing livestock simply isn't true. For years, federal wildlife agents have been able to kill problem wolves that attack herds. The only difference is that under a revised plan, such power would be transferred to state agents.
If the Legislature listens to ranchers and rejects Gingery's bill, there's no doubt Wyoming will be back in federal court with a very weak but expensive case that's already been rejected by one judge. But if lawmakers change the law and make wolves trophy game animals statewide, they could help end the litigation, and Wyoming could get back to managing wolves in the state -- which is the action all parties say they welcome. Let's do it.
This story first appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune on October 21, 2008.