The federal government’s decision to take gray wolves in the Northern Rockies off the Endangered Species List is headed for court.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday formally called for removing wolves from the list in Idaho and Montana while keeping federal protections for wolves in Wyoming. Though wolves in Idaho and Montana won’t officially lose their federal protection until May 4, the delisting rule will be published today in the Federal Register – an action expected to unleash a flood of litigation.
Parties who object may file notices of intent to sue starting today.
In Wyoming, Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said the state will sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the new rule because it denies Wyoming the opportunity to manage its wolves. Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council and 11 other environmental groups said they will sue over their contention that wolf populations aren’t fully recovered.
Wolves in the Northern Rockies are a single population, and shouldn’t be broken up on a state-by-state basis, said Sylvia Fallon, an NRDC staff scientist who works in genetics. “You cannot have protections start and stop at state lines, particularly when genetic interchange between the packs is essential for the wolf’s long-term survival,” she said.
Wolf populations will decline under state management, added Jenny Harbine, an associate attorney with Earthjustice in Montana, which plans to file a 60-day notice of intent to sue this week on behalf of the environmental group.
Idaho’s wolf population is estimated at 850. The state’s Fish and Game Commission is planning for a public wolf hunt this fall and will set quotas in August. Over time, the state plans to reduce its wolf population, managing for 500-plus wolves, said Brad Compton, assistant chief of wildlife for the Department of Fish and Game.
Wolf predation on elk has been a department concern. Liberal hunting seasons are planned for two units in the Clearwater area, where wolves have decimated an elk herd that was once world famous, Compton said. The cow elk population in the Clearwater was estimated at 10,000 in 1995, but has fallen to less than 3,200. Compton said wolves are responsible for nearly 80 percent of the mortality on radio-collared elk in the area.
“The elk are dying faster than they can replace themselves,” he said.
About 1,645 wolves inhabit the Northern Rockies, with 95 breeding pairs. In addition to Idaho’s 850 wolves, Montana has nearly 500 wolves and Wyoming has 300 wolves. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that’s more than enough wolves to sustain future populations.
The social structure of wolf packs makes the animals resilient to disruptions, including high levels of human-cased mortality or disease, agency biologists said. The alpha male or female can be quickly replaced from within or outside the pack. Orphaned pups can be raised by other pack members. Even after severe population declines, wolf numbers can double within two years if mortality is reduced, biologists said.
The U.S. 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.
A separate agency rule calls for removing federal protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes.
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.
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.