Governor Otter Pulls Idaho Out of ESA Wolf Programs

Published November 27, 2010

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has returned grey wolf management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no longer willing to act as a “designated agent” for the federal government after negotiations failed to reestablish legal hunts in the state. 

“Today I join many Idahoans in questioning whether there is any benefit to being a designated agent without the flexibility of a public hunt, which has been denied,” Otter, a Republican, wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Judge Overrule Wildlife Officials
Federal district court judge Donald Molloy ruled in August 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) acted improperly when it removed wolves in Idaho and Montana from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

FWS delisted wolves in Idaho and Montana in April 2009, allowing those states to oversee wolf management, with wolves in Wyoming remaining under federal protection. Molloy ruled all Northern Rocky Mountain wolves must be considered as a whole for purposes of the ESA. The return of the entire Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population to the Endangered Species List means legal harvesting will no longer be allowed.

Otter claims wolves are creating havoc by killing livestock and big game animals such as elk, deer, and moose. 

Wolves Back in Force
During the 1990s the grey wolf was reintroduced in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as part of a recovery effort for the nearly extinct species. More than 1,500 wolves currently reside in the three states, with at least 835 wolves living in Idaho alone.

Despite the large population of wolves, not everyone agrees they are suppressing the populations of other animals. Doug Honnold, lead attorney for the Northern Rockies office of Earthjustice, denies the elk population is being devastated by wolves.

“The claims that they’re devastating elk and deer populations are simply false. Throughout the northern Rockies we’re at an all-time high for elk populations,” Honnold said.

Honnold says high elk populations have been overgrazing, which is a bigger ecological problem than the reestablishment of wolf populations.

Idaho began managing the growing wolf population in 2006 and oversaw its first legal hunt in 2009.

In his letter to Salazar, Otter said the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) will no longer perform statewide monitoring of wolves, investigate illegal killings, provide state law enforcement in response to illegal takings, or participate in a livestock depredation response program. Instead, IDFG will be focusing its attention on protecting its elk, deer, and moose.

Legislators Challenge Ruling
A group of legislators has already geared up to challenge Molloy’s order.

“The abuse of extending the Endangered Species Act to species that aren’t endangered undermines the credibility of the ESA itself,” said U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) in an October 25 press statement. “We’ve already witnessed one state declare its intentions to stop enforcing this particular federal mandate, and legislative solutions have been gaining momentum and popularity. The ESA can serve a valuable function, but environmental extremists have put politics in front of sound science, wrenching control out of the responsible hands of states like Montana.”

Shortly before the November elections, Idaho Republican U.S. Senators Michael Crapo and Jim Risch introduced a bill in Congress to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana. The bill also calls for wolves to be delisted in the adjoining states of Washington, Oregon, and Utah.

Two Democratic U.S. Senators representing Montana, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, introduced bills calling for wolves to be delisted in Montana and Idaho and placed under state management programs.

Battle Continues
Honnold says it’s a major mistake to exempt any species from the Endangered Species Act.

“We take these threats seriously, and we will do everything in our power to try to persuade congress to not go down this road,” said Honnold.

Otter, who won reelection in November by 59 percent to 33 percent, wrote to Salazar that the state is focusing its efforts on delisting the wolf, “whether that is through Congress or via the courts in our challenge of U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s decisions to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.