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Wolves crossing the Canadian border into the northern Rockies

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Are the wolves of the American Northwest actually the animal version of dual citizens, casually crossing the U.S.-Canada border to hang out with the B.C. and Alberta populations from which they were transplanted 15 years ago?

It’s a question that could — depending on the answer — lead to more stringent protections for wolf packs in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, or more hunting of the iconic canines.

A U.S. judge deciding the fate of wolf populations in the three states — the animals were controversially reintroduced to the U.S. from Canadian packs — has ordered duelling environmentalists and wildlife officials to present fresh evidence on the cross-border question.

At stake, District Court Judge Donald Molloy stated in an order issued last week, is whether the official designation of the U.S. packs as “experimental, non-essential populations” — a status that makes them more vulnerable to human hunting as a wildlife management option — should be scrapped.

In a court order issued Friday in Montana, Molloy said the designation may be “moot” since only isolated populations of reintroduced animals can be classified as experimental. Quoting testimony from the U.S. government’s own wildlife officials in previous court hearings, the judge noted references to the emergence of “shared transborder packs between Canada, Montana and Idaho” that appear to nullify the “experimental, non-essential” designation for the U.S. wolves.

The judge has asked U.S. federal wildlife officials and the Defenders of Wildlife — one of several conservation groups involved in a lawsuit aimed at preventing large-scale hunting of wolves in the region — to make submissions on the border question by the end of February.

A decision last August by Molloy ensured the transplanted wolves’ status as endangered species would remain in place despite a bid by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to downgrade the designation, a move that would have recognized the success of the reintroduction program but also would have permitted more authorized wolf hunts in the region. Many farmers and rural residents in all three states have been critical of the reintroduction program, arguing that the return of wolves to the U.S. Northwest has created an ever-present threat to livestock and other problems that can only be addressed by increased wolf hunting.

Despite the protections afforded by the wolves’ endangered species designation, the “experimental” label gives wildlife managers more flexibility to allow hunting as a control measure, said Mike Senatore, vice-president of conservation law with the U.S. conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. He said there’s little doubt there’s evidence of “genetic exchange, interbreeding and wolves dispersing” from the three states to other areas, including the Canadian provinces from which the northwest U.S. wolf populations — now numbering about 2,000 individuals — were originally derived in the mid-1990s.

There also have been confirmed sightings of wolves in Washington, a cause for celebration among wildlife advocates in that state but — as with its eastern neighbours — concerns among many farmers and other residents.

Senatore said he and other lawyers serving as the wolves’ defenders in the U.S. Northwest have just begun reviewing the judge’s order and studying the implications of scrapping the “experimental, non-essential” designation. But he said nurturing a robust, border-crossing population of wolves in the northwest states and adjacent provinces was always a prime purpose of the reintroduction effort.

From a “strictly biological standpoint,” Senatore said, the reintroduction program “has been a huge success.”

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