An agreement reached last week between Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Director Dan Ashe, and the State of Wyoming will allow treatment of the wolf as a predator that can be shot, trapped, or run over at any time throughout most of the state.
Interior has agreed to remove Wyoming wolves from the threatened and endangered species list, and give the state authority to manage wolves under a unique and widely criticized dual management plan.
Wolves would be safe from hunters in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and on the Wind River Indian Reservation, and managed as trophy animals in the surrounding national forests, subject to regulated hunts. Beyond the trophy area, however, anything goes in killing wolves.
Immediately, the air was filled with salvos on both sides of the debate.
“Wyoming has once again succeeded in strong-arming the FWS into submission, giving tentative approval to an approach to wolves that harkens back to years gone by, when wolves were virtually exterminated in the western United States,” attorney Doug Honnold declared for Earthjustice. “After all the efforts to promote wolf recovery in the Yellowstone area, this is a major step backward.”
Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, also blasted the plan.
“Sanctioning aerial gunning and the killing of pregnant females and newborn pups is not only a clear violation of fair-chase hunting ethics, but also a drastic and unwarranted step that could seriously harm the long-term viability of the population.” she said.
Stone said she was appalled that the Obama administration had done something that she would have expected from the Bush administration.
The Interior press release that announced the agreement avoided the word “predator,” ignoring the reality of what predator status means in Wyoming, which is the only state in the Lower 48 that does not treat the wolf as a trophy animal by establishing regulated hunts.
A release from Wyoming Governor Matt Mead did mention the wolf’s predator status, but said nothing about killing wolves, only wolf management. Mead obliquely referred to sacrifices by cattle and sheep growers and the loss of “significant numbers of elk and moose.”
Mead’s statement, but not Salazar’s, referred to the seasonal flexibility of expanding the state’s Trophy Game Management Area about 50 miles to the south from its current location near the Wyoming/Idaho border. The expansion area would be managed as a Trophy Game Management Area from October 15 to the end of February, when wolves disperse into new areas.
Any wolves that attempt to establish a pack south of the flex line can be shot on sight again as soon as denning season starts in the spring.
Inside the trophy zone, the agreement allows livestock owners to kill wolves attacking their sheep or cattle. It also allows Wyoming Game and Fish to use aerial gunning to: control livestock depredations; achieve ungulate management objectives if wolves are determined to be a significant cause for not meeting those objectives; or address human safety issues.
Interior and USFWS have long maintained that Wyoming wolves should be managed as trophy animals, meaning hunters would have defined seasons and would have to purchase hunting permits. Federal officials, even in the Bush administration, regarded Wyoming’s predator status for wolves as problematic.
But Wyoming’s legislature and the successive administrations of Democratic Governor Dave Freudenthal and Republican Governor Matt Mead refused to drop the dual classification of wolves.
Wyoming retains management of wolves as long as wolf numbers do not fall below 150, including animals in the national parks of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Stone noted that with a current population of 246 wolves outside the park, that means almost 150 wolves—nearly 60 percent—could be eliminated.
Based on the latest population estimates, there are 97 wolves within the boundaries of Yellowstone that will remain protected while they are in the park.
The flexible expansion area is supposed to allow Wyoming and Idaho wolves to expand into each other’s state, presumably increasing genetic diversity in both states. Stone said no biologist she knows believes the Interior/Wyoming plan will benefit wolves or wolf genetic diversity.
“A lot of wolves are going to die in our national forests,” she said.
The last time USFWS was politically pushed to approve Wyoming’s dual predator status for wolves, the animals were immediately attacked, she said. She recounted one instance in which a snowmobiler chased a wolf for 30 miles before killing it.
Just a few months ago, in an unprecedented move by Congress, an estimated 1,000 wolves in Idaho and 566 in Montana were “delisted” or removed from Endangered Species Act protections, along with wolves in Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
Meanwhile, Wyoming’s Senator John Barrasso had put a hold on Ashe’s nomination as director of USFWS, a hold that was lifted a few weeks ago after Salazar and Ashe visited Barrasso with assurances that a solution in Wyoming would be aggressively pursued.
The agreement is the first step in a process that could take up to a year to finalize.
On Sept. 7-8, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is slated to vote on changing state regulations to conform with the agreement. That has to happen before USFWS can publish a preliminary rule in the Federal Register to delist Wyoming wolves.
Mead and Salazar have jointly set Oct. 1 as the deadline for the preliminary rule. A year-long federal approval process would then begin, including public comment.
The Wyoming legislature will have to approve the new management plan worked out last week, which it presumably will consider in the next session.
Meanwhile, the Wyoming congressional delegation intends to pursue legislation that would prevent conservation groups or federal judges from getting involved. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-WY, recently inserted a no-litigation rider into a 2012 appropriations bill.
Brodie Farquhar, who has covered the West for decades as a specialist in resource journalism, lives in Casper, Wyoming.