State takes back control of wolves

Great Falls Tribune

by Karl Puckett

The U.S. Interior Department cried wolf recovery for the third time since 2008 on Wednesday, when it lifted federal protections from gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, paving the way for hunters and livestock producers to legally kill wolves in Montana.

The decision, which is effective today, allows producers to shoot wolves — if they’re caught harassing livestock, said Kent Laudon, Northwest Montana’s Kalispell-based wolf management specialist.

“I think that it’s just good all the way around,” Laudon said.

The “caught in the act” tool will help livestock producers respond immediately to attacks, rather than waiting for government agents, he said. It also could deter surviving wolf pack members from hanging around areas where they could eventually be killed, Laudon added.

Once the protections are lifted, state wolf managers will be able to issue kill permits to producers, allowing them to shoot wolves that are not in the act of killing domestic animals. The permits could be issued in cases where the state already has targeted wolves for removal for killing livestock.

Critics of the delisting decision said recovery was premature and promised another legal challenge, similar to the ones that blocked two previous attempts to delist the wolves, thus returning federal protections. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a third delisting plan.

“They were getting close, but they weren’t quite there,” said Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in Helena.

The group plans to join Friends of the Clearwater and Wild Earth Guardians in challenging the decision in U.S. District Court in Missoula on the grounds that it is unconstitutional because it violates separation of powers, Garrity said.

“Congress is not only acting as the legislative branch, they are also acting as the judicial branch,” Garrity said.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, inserted the wolf delisting provision into the 2011 appropriations bill Congress approved last month.

In previous attempts to delist wolves, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted administratively using the Endangered Species Act.

“We’re proceeding with the assumption we’ll be managing wolves,” said Ron Asheim, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “That was the purpose of the legislation.” FWP is planning a wolf hunting season this fall, with a proposed quota of 220.

Montana’s wolf population was at least 566 at the close of 2010, according to wildlife officials.

In the state’s first hunting season in 2010, which occurred while federal protections were briefly lifted, the quota was 186.

A special hunting unit is planned in the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana to reduce the number of elk killed by wolves.

Garrity said the best science shows the Northern Rockies population needs to be 2,000 to 5,000 wolves to reach the recovery stage.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a conference call with reporters that the current population of 1,650 wolves in the Northern Rockies is biologically recovered.

“Like other iconic species, such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act,” Salazar said.

The rule delists wolves in Montana, Idaho and parts of Oregon, Utah andWashington. Wolves in Wyoming will remain protected until the federal government and the state can agree on a satisfactory state management plan.

Years of lawsuits resulted in “unacceptable acrimony” over the recovery of the wolf, which drained resources from other species, prompting Congress to step in, Salazar said.

Tester said state managers would balance the needs of wildlife and livestock producers.

“At least this time it went through Congress instead of some judge that overruled it,” said Ben Hofer, who manages sheep between the Rocky Mountain Front and the town of Pendroy for the Rockport Colony.

Ten years ago, wolves killed 25 of Hofer’s sheep, but it took a week for federal agents to get permission to shoot three wolves from a helicopter, he said. Hofer said returning wolves to state management will allow livestock producers to act quickly in the case of attacks.

“At that time, you had to go through a bunch of political BS to get the job done,” Hofer said.