Gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains will be officially removed from the endangered species list and responsibility for their management turned over to the states today.
“Overall this is a real positive step for wolf recovery and wolf management,” said Steve Nadeau, large carnivore coordinator for the Idaho department of fish and game. “The Endangered Species Act is designed to delist wolves. You don’t put them there to keep them there.”
Idaho, Montana and Wyoming will assume full management responsibility from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the wolves in their states under federally approved management plans, and all three states’ plans include wolf hunting. The first wolf hunting season could come as early as this fall.
The implementation of state management plans could be altered or delayed by future legal action. A coalition of 11 environmental and animal-rights groups represented by the legal organization Earthjustice filed a 60-day notice of its intent to sue to stop delisting on February 28, the day the wolves delisting was officially announced. Under ESA requirements, the group must wait until April 28th to formally file the lawsuit, which it intends to do, said Jenny Harbine, an attorney with Earthustice.
“Our plan is to wait out the 60 days and see what happens,” Harbine said. “The next 30 days should give us an idea of how Montana, Idaho and Wyoming plan to manage their wolves.”
The coalition argues that present wolf populations are insufficient to meet the biological requirements for a recovered species under the Endangered Species Act and that state plans will reduce wolf populations to levels insufficient to maintain the genetic viability necessary to guarantee wolves’ long-term survival in the region.
Recent population counts show more than 1,500 wolves and 100 breeding pairs in the tri-state region. The population has exceed the federal minimum recovery goals of 300 individuals including 30 breeding pairs every year since 2002. State management plants will maintain a minimum of between 900 and 1,250 wolves according to federal officials.
On Thursday the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation reaffirmed its support of hunting as a component of state wolf management. Its president, David Allen, said in a statement: “Long before anyone dreamed of an Endangered Species Act, hunters were restoring and managing elk, mule deer, whitetails, wild turkeys, black bears, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mountain goats and a host of other wildlife. In fact, it was hunter-funded big-game populations that made wolf recovery possible. You’d think the people who argued longest and loudest to bring wolves back would be slapping backs and saying thanks. Instead, they’re filing lawsuits.”
Allen told NewWest.Net, “Somebody has to regulate the wildlife, and right now the states have all the responsibility and none of the authority.”
“I don’t know why the wolf should be treated any different (than any other species),” he added. “There’s too many people dealing with emotion and not the science we have on wildlife conservation.”
The official delisting of gray wolves marks a long road back from the brink of extinction for the species. Following decades of intensive trapping, shooting and a systematic government extermination campaign using poisons, the gray wolf disappeared from the northern Rockies by the 1940s. In 1974, the gray wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act.
A few wolves from Canada began naturally recolonizing northwest Montana during the 1980s. After a decade of contentious public debate, federal officials reintroduced 66 gray wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho 1995 and 1996. Together these wolves have grown into today’s present population.
The official transition from federal to state control, while legally significant, is to some extent ceremonial. Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks have been the lead management agencies in their states since 2004. Wyoming, whose management plan was not approved until late last year announced yesterday that it intends to hire four full-time personnel to manage the wolves within its borders but outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
Matthew Frank contributed reporting.