Montana, Wyoming Challenge Federal Wolf Policies

Published January 1, 2005

The gray wolf population has reached sufficient numbers in the northern Rocky Mountains to justify its removal from the endangered species list, say federal wildlife officials. However, delisting is unlikely to occur anytime soon, as the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has refused to certify Wyoming’s prospective wolf management plan, a requirement for delisting.

As a result, Wyoming is taking the federal government to court, and Montana officials recently used the threat of legal action to win important federal concessions.

Wolf Numbers Exceed Minimum

As one requirement to remove the wolf from endangered status in the northern Rockies, there must be at least 30 breeding pairs of wolves spread equally among Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Those numbers have been met and exceeded in the three states, where the federal government estimates 761 gray wolves live.

“Biologically, I think [delisting] is warranted,” said Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rocky Mountain wolf coordinator, as quoted in the August 16 Environment & Energy Daily.

However, as an additional requirement for delisting, each of the three states must submit wolf management plans that meet the approval of the federal government. Idaho and Montana have submitted federally approved wolf management plans, but the U.S. FWS has rejected Wyoming’s proposed plan as inadequate, citing three reasons:

  • Wyoming’s listing of wolves as “predators” rather than “trophy game” in some parts of the state allows for the killing of wolves at any time or place.
  • Wyoming must commit to managing at least 15 wolf packs in the state, rather than the state’s proposal to ensure at least 10 wolf packs.
  • Wyoming must more restrictively define “wolf pack” to mean at least six wolves traveling together in winter.

State Protests Plan Rejection

In response to the rejection of Wyoming’s proposed management plan Governor Dave Freudenthal (R) wrote to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton that the state had crafted its plan with the assistance, and according to the recommendations, of the federal government.

“On several occasions last year, I wrote asking for clear direction regarding federal wolf policy,” wrote Freudenthal. “In response, Wyoming received several express written representations from individuals at the Assistant Secretary and Director levels that our proposed ‘dual-status’ legislation was adequate to delist. In fact, our legislation became law on the basis of those representations.

“Following those representations, your hand-picked group of wolf scientists endorsed our dual-status approach this past fall. Now, in the face of direct representations to the contrary, and in the face of nearly unanimous agreement that the best available science supports the dual-status approach, Wyoming’s wolf management plan has been rejected. I cannot understand how the federal government can justify such an inconsistent, and frankly, unsupported position.”

Delisting Unlikely in Idaho, Montana

While Wyoming in April 2004 proceeded to sue the federal government for rejecting its proposal, Idaho and Montana officials hoped the delisting would occur in their respective states. However, the federal government refused to delist the wolf in any northern Rocky Mountain state so long as any of the three failed to meet its delisting criteria.

“We’re talking about national policy,” asserted FWS’ Bangs. “Does it make sense to start making these kinds of exceptions? Once you do it for one [recovery project], you do it for everybody.”

Montana officials disagreed with Bangs’ logic and vowed to sue.

“We are prepared to argue that wolves can, and should, be delisted in Montana, regardless of their classification under the [endangered species] act in other states,” wrote Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Director Jeff Hagener in an August 2004 letter to the U.S. FWS.

“I see no other course of action than for the state of Montana to initiate independent legal action to compel the service to consider the alternative,” he concluded.

Concessions Granted

FWS responded by proposing “the second best thing” to delisting: granting Montana the authority to manage its wolves according to its plan.

According to the October 2 Casper Star Tribune, Montana’s wolves won’t be delisted anytime soon, but the FWS has decided to “pass along much of its authority to decide when and where to kill problem-causing wolves to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.” Notably, the new arrangement “would let ranchers shoot wolves they see chasing livestock on private land, something that is illegal now.”

“We’re done,” Bangs told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. “We’re enthusiastic about getting the state (of Montana) more involved.”

Montana officials were pleased with the federal response. Said Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Director Chris Smith, “We hope to have that agreement in place early in 2005. It would put the state in the driver’s seat.”

The Star Tribune reported, “Bangs said he has full confidence in state authorities to protect wolves that don’t cause problems and deal appropriately with the ones that do.”

Despite the agreement of federal scientists, the FWS, and Montana state officials that Montana’s plan will successfully manage the state’s wolf population, the Star Tribune reported, “both Smith and Bangs said they expect someone will sue to halt the transfer of any wolf-control power to Montana.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

The full text of the letter from Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is available online at