After years of legal wrangling over wolf management, the Obama administration and the governors of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming on Monday discussed crafting an end-game – including whether Congress should pull the plug on the debate by declaring the animals’ numbers have fully recovered in the Northern Rockies.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who met with the governors for two hours in Denver, said the group focused on finding “a path forward.”
Salazar met with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Wyoming Gov.-elect Matt Mead. All three states are anxious to reduce wolf numbers to protect other wildlife and reduce livestock attacks.
“The frustration from both the governors and the secretary is that everybody recognizes that the (wolf) population is not only recovered, but it is robust,” Freudenthal said after the meeting. “And why we can’t get to delisting, I think, is very frustrating for all of the people sitting around that table.”
Otter in October pulled his state out of participating in wolf management, turning that task over to federal authorities and saying Idaho wouldn’t take part if it couldn’t hold a wolf hunt.
“Nobody’s talking about eliminating these animals – our position has been biological sustainability,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “We feel we’ve more than reached that, and the problem is that it’s being legislated in the courts. I think that’s why we’ve reached the impasse we currently find ourselves in.”
Salazar, in a statement after the meeting, said, “The successful recovery of the gray wolf is a stunning example of how the Endangered Species Act can work to keep imperiled animals from sliding into extinction. Today’s meeting was very constructive and I appreciate that the governors share our goal to delist the species with a responsible approach guided by science.”
Wyoming’s insistence that its residents be allowed to shoot wolves on sight across most of the state has been the biggest obstacle to ending federal protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act. The state wants to regulate the hunting of wolves only in the northwest corner of the state, on lands generally bordering Yellowstone National Park.
Wolves were removed from endangered species protection in Idaho and Montana in 2009, but remained protected in Wyoming, where the state had no federally approved wolf management plan. A federal judge this year overturned the delisting decision, on grounds that it couldn’t address the same regional wolf population differently along state lines.
Idaho and Montana conducted successful state-regulated wolf hunts in the past year while their wolves were off the endangered species list, but the judge’s ruling halted plans for another wolf hunt in the two states this fall. Hanian said Otter made it clear when he ended Idaho’s role in wolf management that “we’re open to any discussion that would further Idaho’s efforts to have a hunting season, because we think that’s an integral part of successful management.”
Freudenthal said there was no talk at the meeting about trying to resolve things through the courts. But he said there was much discussion about possible congressional action to end things once and for all.
If Congress does act, Freudenthal said it won’t be to try to exempt wolves from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, as some have suggested.
“It’s not an attempt to exempt them,” he said. “It’s to recognize that the population is recovered, and to proceed to recognize that and to try to eliminate the continued litigation that makes it impossible for either the federal government or the states to manage wolf population.”
The governors are hoping Congress will act on the issue before the end of the year, but bills introduced already have stirred opposition from those who warn of undermining the endangered species law.
Tom Strickland, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, who also participated in Monday’s meeting, said the Obama administration would work closely with Wyoming to find a management plan acceptable to both sides. “We made good progress today with Wyoming, and we’re already there with Idaho and Montana,” he said.
Freudenthal said Wyoming and the other states haven’t committed to anything. And while he emphasized that Wyoming was open to talking about changing its tactics, he said it was not willing to change its fundamental principle that it needs to be able to manage wolves as it sees fit outside the “recovery area.”
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said, “The secretary was optimistic, and God love him for being optimistic.” He added, “Me, I would be pleasantly surprised if Congress could act.”
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