By BEN NEARY
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service never should have accepted a wolf-management plan that allows the state of Wyoming to classify the animals as predators that may be shot on sight, environmental groups said in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
A coalition of groups asked a federal judge to force the Fish and Wildlife Service to rescind its transfer of wolf management authority to Wyoming and protect them once again under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service turned over wolf management to Wyoming on Oct. 1 after signing off on a state plan that declares wolves as predators that may be shot on sight in more than 80 percent of the state.
The state plan also allows trophy game hunting of wolves in a flexible zone around Yellowstone. As of Tuesday, licensed hunters in Wyoming had killed at least 33 of the maximum 52 wolves the state is allowing them to kill this year in the trophy area.
Wyoming has committed to maintaining at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and at least 100 individual animals outside of Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation, in the central part of the state. Wildlife managers estimated there were roughly 300 wolves outside of Yellowstone, where no hunting is allowed, when the state took over.
"What the (Fish and Wildlife) Service does, in setting the benchmark for delisting of wolves is an important precedent for its treatment of species all across the country, said Tim Preso, a Montana lawyer who represents the coalition. The groups in the lawsuit are the Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity.
"Wolves get a lot of attention; people care a lot about wolves. The service is under the microscope when it comes to dealing with wolves. And if it's good enough with respect to wolves to say that a free-fire zone in 85 percent of the state is OK, I think we're very concerned that sets a terrible precedent for other species," Preso said.
While some Wyoming sportsmen and ranchers say they're concerned that wolves take an unacceptable toll on wildlife and livestock, environmental groups long have protested that a series of proposed state wolf management plans have failed to offer adequate protection to ensure the species' long-term survival.
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said Tuesday that the groups suing the federal government apparently have decided to go to court regardless of what's happening on the ground in the state.
Mead worked with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to come to agreement on delisting wolves in the state. Mead has emphasized that the state is committed to making sure that it maintains the wolf population and doesn't risk having the federal government take over management again.
"Rather than looking at Wyoming's successful efforts, these groups are suing based on what they wanted," Mead said. "Wyoming's wolf management plan is working well."
Mead said hunters are turning over samples that allow the state to track the genetic diversity of the population. "Wyoming set up a conservative hunt and will easily maintain the necessary wolf population and effectively manage the wolves as agreed upon with the federal government," he said.
The lawsuit is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of litigation over Wyoming's efforts to exert control over a population of gray wolves that has been expanding in the state since the federal government reintroduced the species in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.
The Fish and Wildlife Service had accepted a similar delisting plan from Wyoming in 2007 but later repudiated it after a federal judge in Montana criticized it in response to an earlier legal challenge from environmental groups. The federal agency in recent years had delisted wolves in both Montana and Idaho but had kept authority over them in Wyoming.
Preso said the current Wyoming plan is "the kissing cousin" of the plan the Fish and Wildlife Service previously rejected.
"The changes that were made since the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the plan essentially amount to new window dressing on a plan that still calls for wolf eradication across the majority of the state and does not provide guarantees that the Yellowstone wolf population will be connected to other wolves and won't end up as an isolated, island population," Preso said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.