The Wyoming Wolf Management Plan
As imperiled wildlife, wolves were placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act to ensure their recovery in Wyoming and across the Northern Rockies. An important part of that recovery is transferring management of wolves to the states. For that critical step to take place, Wyoming and the other states must produce workable plans that ensure sound science-based management and sustainable wolf populations.
Wyoming Plan Summary
Wyoming’s wolf management plan is a significant departure for wildlife management in the state because it was created by elected officials in the legislature rather than wildlife biologists at the state’s Game and Fish Department.
The current plan divides Wyoming into two different zones. In 88 percent of the state, known as the “predator zone,” wolves are considered varmints and can be killed by anyone, at any time, by nearly any means. In the remaining 12 percent of the state—the northwestern corner—wolves are considered to be trophy game animals and are subject to management by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In addition, the state law grants private citizens broad latitude to kill wolves in “defense of private property,” which could jeopardize wolf population numbers.
What Could Be Improved
The Wyoming plan is based on politics, not science, and needs to be reworked by the state’s game officials. We would like to see Wyoming adopt a similar approach to Montana’s—managing wolves like other native game species, rather than varmints to be shot on site.
Federal courts agree. A recent judicial ruling reinstating endangered species status criticized these elements of Wyoming’s plan. The federal government has since retracted its delisting rule and Wyoming is starting over with a new plan.
ESA restrictions on wolves hinge on Wyoming
The rhetorical salvos across three Western states have increased since Thursday, when a federal judge returned endangered-species protections to wolf populations in the Northern Rockies.
By Friday morning, groups involved in the debate over the animals had absorbed the 50-page ruling and were eager to share their reactions.
Idaho’s congressional delegation released a joint statement within hours of the ruling expressing disappointment and claiming that Idaho can manage its recovered wolf population.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter echoed the delegation’s disapproval and pledged to fight the decision.
“Rest assured we will exhaust all of our options to legally reverse this ill-advised decision,” Otter said in a press release.
Jim Unsworth, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said Friday that the Idaho attorney general was working on a strategy for a possible appeal. Unsworth said an appeal of an Endangered Species Act decision based upon state boundaries hasn’t been made before and noted other species are managed across state lines.
The main sticking point for U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy was that a single species received different protections in different states. Because Wyoming did not submit an acceptable wolf management plan to the federal government, wolves there had remained listed as endangered.
Wyoming reacted strongly to all eyes once again being on it. Gov. Dave Freudenthal said on Friday that he believes Wyoming residents feel betrayed by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which he said “threw us under the bus” and pitted two other states against his.
Wyoming would have been the only state left out of settlement talks planned for Wednesday, but scuttled after Molloy’s ruling. No settlement offer was on the table, but several wildlife advocacy groups and officials from Montana, Idaho and the federal government were hoping to find some common ground.
Unsworth said Fish and Game, which didn’t organize the meeting, has no general plans for collaboration with Wyoming wildlife officials because their plan was created by the Wyoming Legislature, leaving wildlife officials with no flexibility.
Idaho does plan to try to salvage its wolf hunt this fall, Unsworth said, comparing the situation to fishing for some salmon and steelhead, even though those migratory fish in Idaho are also protected under the ESA.
The state suspended hunting-tag sales Thursday, and will offer refunds to the 6,000 hunters who have purchased tags since Jan. 1 if they haven’t been used.
Response from private groups fell predictably on both sides of the spectrum.
Bob Clark, associate regional organizer of the wolf program for plaintiff the Sierra Club, said the group was pleased that Molloy stood up for science and the law. Under the Endangered Species Act, delisting a single species on a state-by-state basis is illegal and would have set a dangerous precedent for other species, Clark said.
“Having Wyoming come up with a better plan would make it easier on everyone,” Clark said.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation did more than object to the ruling; it’s taking on the Endangered Species Act itself. A Friday press release said the foundation is calling for immediate congressional reform and review of the act because it doesn’t give state wildlife officials the authority to manage wolf populations.
However, Fish and Game is allowed to manage wolf populations south of Interstate 90 if wolves kill livestock or significant numbers of big game. Unsworth said officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services and Fish and Game can cull wolves using a number of methods, with the exception of poison.
Fish and Game spokesman Niels Nokkentved told the Times-News the department is already developing a proposal for such steps in the Lolo elk management area, where elk numbers are down. Managing for a minimum of 20 to 30 wolves over five years would mean initially killing 40 to 50 wolves, followed by a few kills each year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.