Tester, Baucus staffs meet with Ravalli County groups on wolves

Ravalli Republic

by Will Moss

The Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association hosted an informational meeting at the Bitterroot National Forest headquarters in Hamilton Tuesday evening to explore legislative options for returning the management of Montana's gray wolf population to the state.

The meeting focused on a bill that senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus introduced in September that would remove the gray wolf from the federal threatened or endangered species lists in Montana and Idaho, pending approval of each state's wolf management plan by the Secretary of the Interior.

Staff of both Democratic senators were in attendance, as was Montana Wildlife Federation conservation director Ben Lamb and a number of local politicians.

"I was fairly encouraged after hearing what the Baucus and Tester people had to say," said RCFWA president Tony Jones, "that something legislative could get done that will bring us a quicker fix."

Jones was also pleased that the senators' staff seemed to recognize the urgency that many in Ravalli County feel.

"We don't have time like the other areas in the state and they were aware of that," he said. "For the Bitterroot, time is of the essence and not only did they know that, but they were writing notes. So, that was good."

Lamb voiced his support for the bill, especially the way that it addresses the U.S. District Court ruling handed down in August by Judge Donald Molloy, which ended the states' planned management hunts.

"We read it over and it looked pretty good to us, in that it directly addressed Judge Molloy's main concern which was that you can't delist a distinct population segment based on political boundaries," Lamb explained. "The bill gives the Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to do that."

The bill walks a fine line, Lamb added, that doesn't go to the full extent of permanently removing the gray wolf from ESA protections in the states, as Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg's bill would do; a caveat that environmental groups may find more palatable.

"It's a very simple bill, but it's really a very brilliant bill," Lamb said.

Earlier this month, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks moved forward with a request to the USFWS to invoke the ESA's 10(j) rule in the West Fork of the Bitterroot which would allow for wolf management to protect ungulate populations.

The RCFWA backed that request, which is currently up for public comment, but is still seeking other means of reinstating state wolf management.

"We've pushed this 10(j) thing as far as we can go and it's kind of out of our hands now," said Jones. "So, we're looking for the next thing to back that's going to help solve this situation and do it the quickest and legislation looks like it's the next quickest permanent fix."

The link to comment on the 10(j) proposal is available at www.surveymonkey.com/s/D3ZL3GL