Idaho Gov. Butch Otter ordered state wildlife managers Monday to stop arresting poachers and investigating illegal killings of wolves, saying the state is getting out of wolf management.
Without the ability to stage a public wolf hunt this fall, there’s little benefit for Idaho to act as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “designated agent” for managing wolves in the state, the governor said in a terse letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
“This has been after months and months of frustration,” Otter said during an appearance in Boise. “We had a successful hunt last year, and it was a responsible hunt.”
An estimated 850 wolves live in Idaho. Hunters killed 188 wolves during the state’s first public hunt, which ended March 31. State officials said hunting pressure is needed to keep wolves from depleting deer, elk and moose populations.
Earlier this year, a federal judge reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, ruling that the federal government couldn’t delist wolves in Idaho and Montana when the state of Wyoming hadn’t adopted an approved plan to protect wolves. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy blocked public wolf hunts planned this fall in Idaho and Montana.
Since September, Otter’s advisers had been negotiating with Salazar and other federal officials on a plan for Idaho to continue to manage wolves within state borders. In addition to the hunt, Otter wanted provisions giving state wildlife managers more authority to kill wolves in areas where state officials said the packs are taking too many big game.
In practical terms, Monday’s pronouncement means state employees won’t monitor wolf populations, investigate suspicious or illegal killings or take part in culling wolf packs that prey on livestock. Any tips will be turned over to federal wildlife officials.
For the time being, “our employees are getting out of the business of managing these predators,” said Otter spokesman Jon Hanian.
Keith Allred, a Democratic candidate challenging Otter for the governor’s seat, immediately criticized Otter’s stance.
“Butch Otter just gave away more state power to the federal government,” Allred said in a statement. “We need to be asserting our sovereignty, not giving it away.”
“Nothing else has worked,” Otter, a Republican, fired back. “Everything the (federal government) has promised us, they’ve not kept. … It’s time to draw the line somewhere.”
Asking state wildlife managers to enforce unpopular federal mandates, including no taking of wolves, isn’t fair or safe for employees, said Wayne Wright, chairman of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.
“There’s a lot of anger and angst out there on the part of sportsmen with the whole judicial process,” Wright said. “It would be very difficult for us to put our officers in harm’s way.”
He also said it would be “untenable” to subsidize wolf management with revenue from sales of hunting licenses. Last year, Idaho spent about $1.7 million on wolf management. About $500,000 came from license sales, paid for by hunters, with the remainder coming from federal funds.
Interior Department officials said Otter’s demands for a public hunt couldn’t be accommodated.
“The wolf is again on the endangered species list and therefore we cannot currently authorize the resumption of sport hunting of wolves,” said Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman.
But she said the agency will continue to work with Idaho and other states to find a balance between re-establishing wolves and conserving big game.
Otter’s action also drew criticism from Defenders of Wildlife, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit to relist the Northern Rockies’ wolf population under the Endangered Species Act.
Defenders President Rodger Schlickeisen accused Otter of escalating tensions over the wolf issue for “political showmanship.”
“We firmly believe that, with proper safeguards in place, wolves can once again be managed by the states,” he said.