CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday formally called for removing gray wolves from the endangered list in Montana and Idaho while maintaining federal protections in Wyoming, a decision that drew promises of lawsuits.
A separate agency rule calls for removing federal protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes.
The agency’s filing confirms Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s announcement last month that he would uphold the decision to leave the wolves under federal management in Wyoming.
Publication of the formal delisting rule in the Federal Register officially occurs Thursday, serving mainly to open the floodgates of litigation over the issue. Parties who object may file notices of intent to sue starting Thursday.
Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said the state will sue the Fish and Wildlife Service over the new rule because it denies Wyoming management. Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups said they will also sue over their contention that federal protections are inadequate.
“We know we’re going to be in litigation over this whole thing,” said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana.
Wolf management in the western Great Lakes hasn’t spawned as much controversy as it has in the Northern Rockies. The federal government has approved wolf management plans crafted by Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. There has been some litigation over the plans, but they enjoy considerable support from conservationists in those states.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northern Rockies wolf rule covers Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, the eastern one-thirds of Oregon and Washington, and parts of northern Utah.
Wyoming has been pushing for years to bring wolves under state management. It proposes to classify them as predators that could be shot on sight in most areas, while leaving them to be managed as trophy game in the greater Yellowstone area.
Many Wyoming ranchers are concerned about wolves preying on livestock while hunters in the state don’t like competition from wolves for elk and moose.
Salzburg said Wednesday that the state plans to file suit in federal court in Wyoming. He said the state objects to the Fish and Wildlife Service seeking to raise the number of wolves it wants the state to accommodate.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to make its decisions based solely on science, as opposed to what we think are political and public relations concerns that in our view don’t have a place in a listing or delisting decision,” Salzburg said.
About 1,645 wolves are in the Northern Rockies, Bangs said, including more than 300 in Wyoming, nearly 500 in Montana and about 850 in Idaho.
Salzburg said the federal government has been telling Wyoming, Idaho and Montana for years that they need to aim for 15 breeding pairs and at least 150 wolves per state. However, the federal rule published this week would specify that Wyoming should maintain at least seven breeding pairs and 70 wolves outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has waffled in recent years on whether to turn over wolf management in Wyoming to the state.
The federal agency accepted Wyoming’s management plan in late 2007, clearing the way for delisting about 1,500 wolves in the Northern Rockies early last year. However, environmentalists sued over that delisting effort, saying it didn’t offer wolves enough protection.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Montana ruled in favor of the environmental groups last summer. The judge ruled that the state management plans were insufficient to protect the wolves and leveled particular criticism against Wyoming’s plan.
Bangs, of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said it’s clear that Wyoming needs to classify wolves as trophy game animals throughout the state and manage them the same way it manages bears and mountain lions. He said the state can’t allow wolves to be killed indiscriminately.
Doug Honnold, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Montana, represented the coalition of environmental groups that shot down last year’s wolf delisting proposal. He said the coalition will kick off a new lawsuit in federal court in Montana this week challenging the new federal delisting plan.
“We don’t think we’re at recovery yet,” Honnold said Wednesday. “And we’re going to fight until we can get to legitimate recovery. We think that the population is close to appropriate recovery levels, but it’s not there yet.”