BILLINGS – Facing mounting pressure from Congress, wildlife advocates and the U.S. Department of the Interior on Friday reached an agreement to lift gray wolf protections in Idaho and Montana and allow hunting of the predators to resume.
The settlement agreement – opposed by some environmentalists – is intended to resolve years of litigation that have shielded wolves in the Northern Rockies from hunting, even as the predator’s population has sharply expanded.
Terms of the deal were to be filed in U.S. District Court in Montana. It would keep the species on the endangered list, at least temporarily, in four states where they are considered most vulnerable: Washington, Oregon, Wyoming and Utah. And it calls for a scientific panel to re-examine wolf recovery goals that set a minimum population level of 300 wolves in the region.
“For too long, wolf management in this country has been caught up in controversy and litigation instead of rooted in science, where it belongs,” said Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes.
In Idaho, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch said he applauded the Interior Department’s continued effort to delist wolves but said he’s concerned that the plan might not be approved in federal court.
“The history of wolf agreements is littered with assurances and promises that have not been kept,” said Risch, a Republican. “We need the federal government totally removed from the wolf issue.”
There are an estimated 1,651 wolves in the region following a costly but successful restoration effort. That program stirred deep antipathy toward the predators among Western ranchers and hunters, who blame wolves for livestock attacks and a recent decline in some elk herds.
Court rulings blocked prior efforts by the Bush and Obama administrations to lift wolf protections.
But with Western lawmakers threatening to intervene, environmentalists said they wanted to pre-empt precedent-setting federal legislation on wolves. They fear congressional intervention could broadly undermine the Endangered Species Act.
The deal resulted from “a combination of the political pressure and trying to end the cycle of battling with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Although wolf hunting in Idaho and Montana could begin as soon as this fall, the deal provides assurances to protect the species over the long term and even expand its range into other states, Suckling said.
Not all of the groups involved in wolf litigation agreed to the settlement, which will complicate efforts to garner approval from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula.
Molloy’s support is crucial because he must agree to put a stay on an order he issued last summer that reinstated wolf protections in Idaho and Montana.
Attorneys for Earthjustice previously represented most of the plaintiffs in the case. They withdrew this week citing “ethical obligations,” but three of the four groups opposed to Friday’s agreement already have brought on new attorneys.
“We’re going to defend the judge’s ruling,” said Tom Woodbury with the Western Watersheds Project, referring to Molloy’s 2010 order that reinstated protections for wolves.
More than 1,300 wolves were tallied in Montana and Idaho in recent counts by state, federal and tribal biologists.
Only about 40 live in Oregon and Washington. But Suckling said the settlement agreement lays the groundwork for more wolves in those states and beyond by keeping them protected during their anticipated expansion.
“We need to start to build that second population, and this puts us on the road to get that done,” he said.