The Department of the Interior officially announced this morning the removal of the Northern Rocky Mountains population of gray wolves from the Endangered Species List.
“The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has far exceeded its recovery goals and continues to expand its size and range,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett said in a statement.
The latest population counts show more than 1,500 wolves and 100 breeding pairs in the tri-state region, well above the established recovery minimums of 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs.
The announcement affects only wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains, including all of the states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, a piece of north-central Utah and the eastern third of Oregon and Washington. Outside of this area and the Midwest, where wolves were delisted in 2007, gray wolves will remain endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The delisting decision will not take effect until 30 days after the rule is formally published in the Federal Register, expected before the end of the month. Assuming there are no court challenges — and there will be — the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming will then assume full management for the wolves in their states.
A number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, announced their intent to file suit after the rule is published in an effort to stop the delisting.
“The Sierra Club is opposed to the delisting of the gray wolf right now and we do plan to file suit,” said Melanie Stein, associate representative of the Sierra Club in Wyoming.
Environmental groups around the region called the announcement premature and says it threatens to undo the decades of work and millions of dollars poured into wolf recovery efforts.
“We have spent a lot of time and money and it would be a real shame to see wolf numbers decline due to a premature delisting,” Stein said.
The Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman Suzanne Stone agreed it was too early to turn wolf management over to the states and said the decision was based on politics, not on science.
“Three hundred wolves in the region is not a viable population period,” said Stone, citing the federal minimum.
Both environmental groups believe the federally approved state management plans are not sufficient to ensure the long term survival of the wolf in the region, and are particularly critical of Idaho and Wyoming’s plans.
“The wolf population will be significantly reduced and that is a step backward,” said Stone.
Conservationists argue current wolf populations are still too low to be considered genetically sustainable. The wolf population in Yellowstone also remains genetically isolated from the wolves in Idaho and the rest of Montana. Some scientists argue that the federal recovery minimum of 300 wolves is insufficient to maintain a healthy population across the region. They say 2,000 to 3,000 wolves are required across the region to maintain long-term genetic viability.
But not all reaction was negative. Jay Bodner, natural resource director for The Montana Stockgrowers Association, said he was encouraged by the federal government’s decision.
“We’ve met recovery goals for four or five years,” he said. “They looked at the science, they based it on science, not on emotion, and we support it 100 percent.”