BILLINGS - Defying federal authority over gray wolves, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday encouraged ranchers to kill wolves that prey on their livestock - even in areas where that is not currently allowed - and said the state will start shooting packs that hurt elk herds.
Schweitzer said he no longer would wait for federal officials to resolve the tangle of lawsuits over wolves, which has kept the animals on the endangered species list for a decade since recovery goals were first met.
"We will take action in Montana on our own," he said. "We've had it with Washington, D.C., with Congress just yipping about it, with (the Department of) Interior just vacillating about it."
State wildlife agents and ranchers already kill wolves regularly across much of the Northern Rockies, where 1,700 of the animals roam parts of five states. Rules against killing wolves have been relaxed significantly by federal officials over the past decade but hunting remains prohibited.
Livestock owners in southern Montana and Idaho have authority to defend their property by shooting wolves that attack their cattle, sheep or other domestic animals. And federal agents regularly kill problem wolves, with more than 1,000 shot over the past decade.
But Schweitzer is moving to expand those killings beyond what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has so far allowed, including to parts of Montana where ranchers are not allowed to shoot the predators.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chris Tollefson said the agency was working with Montana and other states in the region to address their concerns over the wolf population.
"We've been in negotiations with Montana and the other states for some time, and we're committed to continuing that and trying to find a solution that works for everybody," he said.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar provided by Schweitzer's office, the Democratic governor said state game wardens will be directed to stop investigating wolf shootings north of Interstate 90, the part of the state with the strictest protections for the animals.
That follows a similar show of defiance from Idaho's Republican governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter.
Otter said in the fall that Idaho Fish and Game agents would no longer participate in wolf management efforts, including shooting investigations. The move forced federal officials to step in to enforce restrictions on killing the animals.
Federal enforcement of laws against killing protected wolves also would be expected in Montana.
But critics of federal wolf policies appeared emboldened by the governor's Wednesday statements. Robert Fanning, who heads a group that advocates protecting elk herds around Yellowstone National Park from wolves, sent out an e-mail urging Montana residents to "lock and load and saddle up while there is still snow on the ground."
In the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, Schweitzer directed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to begin removing wolf packs blamed for driving down elk populations.
The state has a pending petition before the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove a dozen wolves in the Bitterroot. A decision on that petition is pending, according to federal officials.
But Schweitzer indicated Wednesday he was not going to wait, and would leave it to state wildlife agents to decide when to kill the wolves. He was less adamant in the letter to Salazar, which said the Bitterroot packs would be killed "to the extent allowed by the Endangered Species Act."
Department of Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the agency agreed there was an "urgent need" to turn over wolf management to states that have acceptable management plans for the animals.
"But the governor's letter is not the answer," she added.
Federal wildlife officials have tried twice in the last four years to lift endangered protections for wolves and turn over management to the states. Both attempts were reversed in federal court.
A provision in a budget bill pending before Congress would revoke endangered species status for wolves in Montana and Idaho. Other measures introduced by lawmakers would lift federal protections across the lower 48 states.
Despite the bitter public divide on the issue, attacks on livestock by other, unprotected predators such as coyotes far exceed damage from wolves, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. But the lack of state control over wolves because of their endangered status has frustrated both livestock owners and elk hunters, who complain that their hands are tied by federal protections.
"This is a real-life problem in Montana - and we plan to start solving the problem," Schweitzer said.