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News and Opinion

WOLF DEBATE LINGERS INTO NEW YEAR

Hope that new administration puts a halt on delisting plan
by CHRIS MERRILL, Casper Star-Tribune

When it comes to wolves in the Northern Rockies, it's nearly impossible to get all interested parties to concur on anything.

But if the Bush administration proceeds as planned, there could be an odd mix of groups all agreeing it's a bad idea.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have indicated they plan to remove wolves from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act—once again—before President George W. Bush leaves office on Jan. 20.

If that happens, conservationists, Wyoming ranchers and the state of Wyoming itself could all file lawsuits against the decision.
It will depend on whether the Fish and Wildlife Service follows through on a threat to rescind its approval of Wyoming's wolf management plan.

If Wyoming's plan is no longer an officially approved scheme, the Bush administration could delist wolves in Montana and Idaho only—and continue to classify the predators as an endangered species in the Cowboy State.

And that would likely stir up a storm of litigation.

Conservationists argue such a decision would be contrary to the Endangered Species Act, and they would almost certainly challenge it. A Wyoming stockgrowers group has said it will also probably file suit against such a decision. The state of Wyoming would likely sue, too.

Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said in an e-mail last week that the state has yet to receive official notice that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not approve of the state's wolf plan. But Gov. Dave Freudenthal has previously said he has been informed by the federal agency it will no longer approve of Wyoming's wolf plan unless the state changes its wolf laws.

"If wolves are delisted in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming, litigation is probable," Salzburg said.

"Although we have some hints from the (Fish and Wildlife Service), we do not know what the revised final rule will say, nor when it will take effect," he said. "Nor do we know whether the Legislature will amend the wolf management statutes again this session, and, if so, whether that will occur prior to the effective date of the revised final rule."

A defensible plan?

The sticking point is the Cowboy State's "dual status" for wolves, as written into state statute. Under the law, wolves are considered trophy game animals in the northwest corner of the state and are afforded some protection there, but they are classified as "predators" everywhere else. In the so-called predator zone, which includes most of the state, there are no limitations on killing wolves for any reason.

Salzburg said there is "substantial evidence" that the Fish and Wildlife Service's objection to dual classification is "not science-based."

More than 90 percent of wolves live in the state's designated wolf trophy game zone.

Asked if he believed Wyoming has a legally defensible plan, Salzburg said, "Yes," especially with recent amendments to the plan approved this fall by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.

Ed Bangs, the federal gray wolf recovery coordinator, has confirmed in the past the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho, only. He was unavailable for comment for this story.

Bryce Reece, executive vice president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, said last month that if the federal government delists wolves in Idaho and Montana only, it could also invite lawsuits from stockgrowers.

"It's clear if they proceed to delist in Idaho and Montana and leave them endangered in Wyoming, once again the federal government is giving the state of Wyoming and groups like ours plenty of cause for legal action," Reece said.

It would also invite litigation from environmental groups.

'Piecemeal' delisting?

Louisa Willcox is a senior wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the 12 conservation and animal rights groups that successfully litigated against the previous delisting rule finalized last March. She's "certain" at least some conservation groups will challenge any new delisting rule that leaves out Wyoming.

"A species is either recovered or not," Willcox said. "The fundamental question is, 'Has recovery been achieved?' You need wolf recovery in all three states."

The U.S. Department of the Interior has also taken this same position in the past.

In a letter to the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department written in 2003, Steven Williams, the former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote that all three states in the Northern Rockies must, by rule, be included in any wolf delisting decision.

Williams wrote: "The wolf populations of the three states comprise the Western Distinct Population Segment (of wolves), the listed entity in question."

The correspondence, written on Interior Department letterhead, is available on the Fish and Wildlife Service's Web site.

Suzanne Stone, the Northern Rockies representative for the D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife, indicated her group believes if the Bush administration tries to delist wolves in a "piecemeal fashion," it won't be legal by Endangered Species Act standards.

"The (Fish and Wildlife Service) will have flip-flopped on their own decision if they decide to try to delist wolves now without the state of Wyoming," Stone said.

Regardless, even if the new rule includes Wyoming but it is similar to the previous rule, it will also likely be challenged in court, Stone said.

She hopes, however, that President-elect Barack Obama and his incoming administration will lead to a shift in the federal government's approach to delisting wolves, she said.

"It would be great if the new administration can help bring all interested parties to the table, allowing stakeholders to iron out solutions to the management conflicts," Stone said.

Salzburg suggested that no matter what approach the federal government takes, more lawsuits are almost guaranteed.

"It is difficult to find any consensus regarding wolves," Salzburg wrote in his e-mail. "The lack of consensus between the positional extremes generally equates to long-term litigation."


Contact environment reporter Chris Merrill at (307) 267-6722 or chris.merrill@trib.com.

This story first appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune on January 05, 2009.
http://www.casperstartribune.net/articles/2009/01/06/news/wyoming/6400bc33bf27bbba8725753400267860.txt


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