Montana had a good idea when it came time to develop a state plan for managing wolves - its Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department engaged interested parties and the public in a statewide stakeholder process. What's more, Montana's leaders listened to the various stakeholders, from ranchers to hunters to conservationists and others. Not surprisingly, the result was a plan that doesn't completely satisfy everyone but is an honest attempt to manage wolves for the long term while meeting the needs of ranchers and others who can be affected by wolves.
The Northern Rockies wolf population is not isolated within Montana's borders, however. Montana's neighbors forgot that in the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, wildlife belongs to all Americans, and the role of states is to sustain wildlife populations forever. Wyoming and Idaho disregarded input from biologists and conservationists, caved in to politics and fear-mongering, and, predictably, came up with extreme plans designed more for killing wolves than managing them.
Wyoming's approach is outdated and crude - shoot 'em on sight - although the state does begrudgingly require a license to shoot wolves on the edge of Yellowstone National Park and acknowledges that wolves can't be shot in the park itself.
Plan equals death
Idaho's plan isn't as bad as Wyoming's - but that's about all that can be said for it. Idaho plans to kill half its wolves the first year it takes over management, and would allow wolves to be killed by anyone at any time for any number of questionable reasons, such as suspicion that they are "worrying" or "annoying" livestock or pets.
These plans, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's own plan for getting out of the wolf business, allow 70 percent or more of the wolves in the Northern Rockies to be killed as soon as they are declared recovered. That's more than 1,000 wolves. No other species has or probably ever will be subject to this level of mismanagement. Worse, wolves could be maintained at the zoo-like level of 450 or fewer in the vast northern Rockies forever. This is not what is meant by recovery of a species.
These radical population reductions were approved before wolves even met the recovery goals set by wolf biologists. A core requirement that still hasn't been achieved is that wolves need to function as one connected population throughout the region and Canada, instead of the current situation of three largely isolated subpopulations in the United States.
Off the list, on the list
These are the sound, scientific reasons that wolves were recently returned to the federal endangered-species list, first by a court then by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Instead of fixing these problems, however, Bush administration officials are rushing to remove wolves from the endangered-species list by any means possible before leaving office. In their haste, however, they proposed the exact same delisting plan 10 days after they withdrew it for not passing legal muster. Rather than actually recover and reconnect the regional wolf population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now appears likely to tweak its plan to truck wolves between core populations and cut Wyoming out of the delisting plan.
Papering over serious shortfalls in wolf recovery isn't going to work. Wolves aren't likely to come off the endangered-species list until recovery goals are met and state plans are in place that manage wolves as part of the West's wildlife heritage, not minimize and further fragment their regional population.
Montana could step in here, and use its influence with the governors of Wyoming and Idaho and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to discourage this rush job, which will probably result in wolves remaining on the endangered-species list even longer. Montana should encourage instead a regionwide stakeholder process, similar to the one it ran in Montana, and lead the way toward a regional wolf strategy that addresses interstate issues like movement between core populations, accommodates legitimate stakeholder interests and achieves state management with coordinated, responsible state plans.Mike Leahy is Rocky Mountain Region Director in Bozeman for Defenders of Wildlife.
This story first appeared in the Billings Gazette on December 27, 2008.