Efforts to control wolf population ignite fierce debate

By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

Since gray wolves were reintroduced in the northern Rocky Mountain region in 1995, environmentalists have fought a pitched battle with ranchers and state officials that has included a lot of heated rhetoric and court cases.

Thirty-five of the animals were introduced in central Idaho and the Yellowstone National Park region in 1995 and 1996. Since then, their population has mushroomed to about 1,700 today, well beyond the original federal recovery goal of 300 total animals and 30 breeding pairs.

Idaho, Montana and Wyoming believe the actual number of wolves is much higher than official estimates, and Idaho officials estimate there are over 1,000 wolves in the Gem State alone.

Ranchers claim the wolves are having a major negative impact on their industry, while state officials say they are decimating portions of ungulate populations and need to be properly managed through hunts and other methods.

After more than a decade of court battles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted wolves in much of the northern Rocky Mountain region in 2009. A lawsuit by environmental groups resulted in a district court judge in Montana ordering the wolves to be relisted in August 2010.

As a result of that action, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., attached a rider to a fiscal 2011 federal spending bill that required USFWS to reinstate its previous rule from 2009 delisting the animals from the Endangered Species Act.

The provision marked the first time Congress has acted to remove a plant or animal from ESA protection, and Simpson said he was compelled to act because ongoing litigation wasn't benefiting anyone.

"On the other hand, providing a long-term solution to the management of these animals serves the best interests of the states, the federal agencies, ranchers and hunters, and those whose true goal is a sustainable wolf population in the Rocky Mountain west," he said.

As a result of the congressional rider, wolves on May 5 were delisted in Idaho and Montana, the eastern third of Oregon and Washington, and a small portion of northern Utah. They are still listed in Wyoming; however, the USFWS on Oct. 4 announced a proposed rule to delist the animal in that state.

The wolf hunts underway in Idaho and Montana have partly placated those in favor of having states manage wolves.

"At least it gives wolves a reason to fear humans and be more cautious around them," said Idaho Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Thompson.

Environmentalists, however, claim the hunts are part of the states' plans to slaughter most of the wolf population in the region.

Jon Hanian, a spokesman for Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, said that's not true and points out the federal government would step in and relist the animals if that happened.

Idaho's federally approved management plan calls for maintaining a minimum of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs, but the state plans to maintain a minimum of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs to provide a buffer. Montana has a similar plan.

"We feel confident wolves will continue to do very well in Idaho under our state management plan," said Dustin Miller, governmental liaison for the Idaho Governor's Office of Species Conservation. "Our goal is to try to strike a balance between our wolf population, our ungulate population and our livestock industry."

From Jan. 1-Oct. 31, Idaho Wildlife Services confirmed wolves killed or injured 68 cattle, 83 sheep and six dogs. Since the start of hunting season Aug. 30, a total of 144 wolves had been killed by hunters through the end of November.

Some environmental groups have sued to overturn the congressional action and stop the hunts, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing that action.

However, the congressional rider specifically states the provision shall not be subject to judicial review.

Idaho officials point out the rider received bipartisan support in both the House and Senate as well as from the Obama administration.

"Congress intervened because of the legal wrangling that was going to go on forever," Miller said. "We remain optimistic that the 9th Circuit Court will uphold Congress' action in delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana."

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