Deal reached to lift wolf protections in 2 states

Billings, Montana (AP) March 2011

Facing mounting pressure from Congress over gray wolves, wildlife advocates reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior last week to lift the species’ federal protections in Montana and Idaho and allow hunting 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 public hunting, even as the predator’s population has sharply expanded.

“For too long, wolf management in this country has been caught up in controversy and litigation instead of rooted in science, where it belongs. This proposed settlement provides a path forward,” said Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes.

Court documents detailing the proposed agreement were filed last week 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: Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah. And the deal calls for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set up a scientific panel that will re-examine wolf recovery goals calling for a minimum 300 wolves in the region – a population size wildlife advocates criticize as inadequate.

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, the 10 national and local groups involved in the settlement said they wanted to pre-empt precedent-setting federal legislation on wolves. They feared congressional intervention could undermine the Endangered Species Act, with sweeping ramifications for imperiled fish, animals and plants.

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 the 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 in Idaho and Montana.

Molloy is slated to become a senior judge in August, meaning another judge would eventually take over his duties. But his office said he will continue to carry a full caseload for now, and no decision has been made on what cases he might eventually give up.

More than 1,300 wolves were tallied in Montana and Idaho in recent counts by state, federal and tribal biologists. The population reached the original federal recovery goal a decade ago but many of the groups involved in the settlement had long maintained that those goals were too modest.

Federal officials say wolves in Wyoming also have sufficiently recovered but have been kept on endangered list because of concern over a state law that allows them to be shot on sight across most of the state.

The federal government announced earlier this week that it was resuming negotiations with Wyoming to come up with an acceptable wolf management plan with the state.

About 40 wolves 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.