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Idaho won’t manage wolves under ESA

BOISE — After talks with the federal government collapsed, Gov. Butch Otter ordered Idaho wildlife managers today to relinquish their duty to arrest poachers or to even investigate when wolves are killed illegally.

Otter rejected the wolf management Idaho has conducted for years as the federal government’s “designated agent” after a U.S. District Court judge in Montana returned wolves to Endangered Species Act protections earlier this year.

This means Idaho Department of Fish and Game managers will no longer perform statewide monitoring for wolves, conduct investigations into illegal killings, provide law enforcement when wolves are poached or participate in a program that responds to livestock depredations.

In an angry letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Republican governor said withdrawing from wolf management will keep Idaho hunters and their money from subsidizing the federal program. Otter accused the federal government of foisting wolves upon Idaho — he calls them “your wolves” — and promised to quickly submit plans asking for special permission to kill dozens of wolves to protect big game herds.

“History will show that this program was a tragic example of oppressive, ham-handed ’conservation’ at its worst,” Otter wrote. “Idahoans have suffered this intolerable situation for too long, but starting today at least the state no longer will be complicit.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that oversees endangered species, didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment on how it will respond to Idaho’s move.

It’s unclear just how wolves will be managed now; between 1995 and 2005, the Nez Perce Tribe in north-central Idaho managed Idaho’s predators, before the state stepped in. Keith Lawrence, a Nez Perce wolf manager, didn’t immediately return a phone call.

Idaho has about 850 wolves and insists the species is recovered in the northern Rocky Mountains after its reintroduction to the region in the mid-1990s.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula restored Endangered Species Act protections following a lawsuit from environmentalists who argued Idaho and Montana wolves could not be under state control while Wyoming wolves remained under federal control.

Douglas Honnold, lead attorney with Earthjustice who represented the environmental groups, said Otter’s decision shows that the state doesn’t want to cooperate with efforts to make sure wolves are adequately protected.

“We’re disappointed the governor wants to play politics with wolves instead of come up with a legitimate recovery program for wolves, that complies with the law and the science,” Honnold said from his offices in Bozeman, Mont.

With Molloy’s ruling in August, Idaho and Montana have had to cancel public hunts, something that’s especially irked Otter. He contends the first legal harvest that started in 2009 and ended earlier this year demonstrated that states could manage wolves responsibly.

“Today I join many Idahoans in questioning whether there is any benefit to being a designated agent without the flexibility of a public hunt,” Otter said, adding he’s doubtful that continuing as designated agent would speed up the delisting process.

Montana statewide wolf coordinator Caroline Sime in Helena didn’t immediately return a phone call about her state’s plans for its predator population, or how it will respond to Idaho’s move.

Otter’s advisers had been negotiating with Salazar and other federal officials since September on a plan for Idaho to continue to manage wolves within its borders. Among other things, Otter insisted on provisions giving state managers more power to kill wolves that prey on elk, moose or deer in areas where the state says big game herds are suffering.

Republican U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo separately have introduced a bill that aims to exempt wolves in Idaho from federal protections that were restored by Molloy’s order.