Wyoming, Feds Clash on Gray Wolf Delisting

Published March 1, 2004

An anticipated delisting of gray wolves from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection was put on hold January 12 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined Wyoming’s proposal to manage its gray wolf population did not ensure maintenance of current population numbers.

The FWS determination derailed the plans of three states to assume the lead role in managing gray wolf populations. Although FWS approved wolf management plans submitted by Montana and Idaho, the ESA designation will remain in place until Wyoming also gets federal approval for its plan.

“Delisting cannot be proposed at this time due to some significant concerns about portions of Wyoming’s state law and wolf management plan,” wrote FWS Director Steve Williams in a letter to Terry Cleveland, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Of most concern to FWS is Wyoming’s proposal to establish a “dual classification,” whereby some wolves would be protected from humans while others would be listed as predators subject to hunting. FWS was unconvinced dual classification would sufficiently notify citizens as to which wolves are protected and which subject to hunting. FWS feared that as a result, many “protected” wolves would be mistakenly killed, and thus the plan would not “provide sufficient management controls to assure the service that the wolf population will remain above recovery levels.”

Thirty years after being added to the Endangered Species list and nine years after being reintroduced to the Northern Rocky Mountains, the gray wolf population has grown to roughly 760 animals. In 2003 FWS announced that this number, coupled with the identification of 30 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, warranted delisting the wolf if the three states proposed management plans that would ensure maintenance of wolf populations.

“We’re all tied together on this,” said Jeff Hagener, director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“We’re preparing to implement state management as soon as that’s feasible and logical,” agreed Steve Nadeau of the Idaho Fish and Game Department.

Montana and Idaho officials have offered their assistance in helping Wyoming draft and implement a management plan acceptable to FWS. With the Wyoming legislature currently committed to addressing budget issues, however, it may take six months to a year before state officials take up a revised plan.

Governor, State Officials Disappointed

Political fallout from the FWS determination was quickly apparent. Obviously disappointed at the FWS determination, Wyoming’s Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal, blasted the FWS and charged election-year politics were to blame.

“They could have said last year that this statute was fundamentally flawed,” Freudenthal said. “I think it’s political in that [the Bush administration], as a matter of national election policy, decided to, shall we say, throw Wyoming to the wolves, because they want to have environmental support.”

Interior Department official Paul Hoffman disputed Freudenthal’s allegations. “We want to see wolf management returned to the states” as soon as possible, he said.

FWS director Williams said Freudenthal and the state legislature should not have been surprised by the agency’s determination. Although the dual classification proposal had attracted bipartisan support among Wyoming lawmakers, Williams told the state’s Game and Fish Commission in 2002 that the approach would likely be unacceptable to FWS. Also, FWS wolf coordinator Ed Bangs told state officials in July 2003 that dual classification “could derail and will certainly prolong” efforts to delist the wolf.

“I wasn’t shocked, I guess, at the [FWS determination], but I was disappointed,” said Bill Witchers, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Environmental activist groups were pleased by the Bush administration’s decision. “I am pleasantly surprised and encouraged that the service doesn’t think open season on wolves is a decent management plan,” said Nina Fascione of Defenders of Wildlife.

Residents Urge Pragmatism

“Wyoming’s plan is pragmatic,” said Montana resident Dave Skinner. “It accepts the presence of wolves in national parks and in wilderness areas, taking steps to keep wolves where they belong while, most importantly, keeping wolves from spreading to areas they don’t belong.”

Added Skinner, “What will happen if packs get established in the Park Range or the Snowies and start munching their way through Colorado’s elk herds, or Moffat County’s mule deer? What will happen if wolves get into the Laramies and start raiding the game herds and ranches on either side? Ranchers and outfitters around Yellowstone are already kissing their futures goodbye. I know at least one northwest Montana rancher who gave up because of wolves.”

“We should keep (incentives and agreements) as a viable option and also at the same time maybe tweak the legislation so that it clearly identifies those options and sets parameters for them so they can’t be challenged,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.

“We don’t think Wyoming lawmakers wanted to keep wolves on the [ESA] list, but it’s what they did,” stated a Great Falls Tribune house editorial. “And that shot that hit them in their own figurative foot ricocheted and took a chunk out of their neighbors’ feet too. We want to see wolves delisted.”

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