The wolves themselves may be the only ones who won't be at the Russell Smith Courthouse on Tuesday morning when U.S. District Judge Don Molloy returns to arguments about the predator's Endangered Species Act status.
"I'm getting 10 to 15 e-mails an hour from people who are going to show up," said Missoula hunter Toby Bridges, whose Lobo Watch blog has been a rallying point for those who want wolf numbers severely reduced. "People are just fed up, and they've got to be heard."
Bridges' blog bumped the discussion to a new level June 5 when he posted a warning that hunters might consider using Xylitol artificial sweetener to poison wolves.
"Wolf control now has a new, until now secret, weapon." Bridges wrote. "I have a feeling that if Molloy goes against the wishes of today's hunters, there's going to be a whole lot of very sweet gut piles and wolf-killed carcasses dotting the landscape this fall. Along with some supplemental feeding of wolf pups come next spring."
Xylitol can be lethal to dogs, wolves, foxes and other canines by causing a sudden drop in blood sugar, often followed by fatal seizures or liver damage. Bridges said he wasn't calling for people to poison wolves, but predicting some would.
The prediction has caught the notice of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden Capt. Jeff Darrah.
"The question I would ask, if a guy's not saying or advocating he's going to do it, why would he put it out on his website?" Darrah said. "It would be illegal to put it out purposely to kill wolves or any animal. The standard line from Fish, Wildlife and Parks would be if you take Xylitol or any other poison and lace meat with it and put it out there to kill wolves, that's a crime. This has been put out by Lobo Watch as a way to kill wolves. If wolves start dying as a result of this activity, that's where I'd look first."
Meanwhile, state and federal authorities are preparing their case that gray wolves should be delisted as a threatened species and turned over to state control. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted that at the end of the Bush administration in 2008, but the decision was delayed while Obama administration staff reviewed it.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar approved delisting the wolf in Montana and Idaho in early 2009. A coalition of conservation groups challenged that in court, arguing it was illegal to delist wolves in those states while keeping Wyoming's population under federal control.
U.S. District Judge Don Molloy allowed the Montana and Idaho wolf hunts to go forward last fall, but is still considering whether the federal government properly delisted the predator.
"We think the law is crystal clear that what they did was illegal," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who is leading the conservation coalition's case. "If the Endangered Species Act allows the government to pick and choose which individual members of a species get protection and which don't, you have a very crabbed and we think illegal interpretation of the law."
Wyoming state officials have launched their own lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for rejecting their wolf management plan. That case had hearings in February and is still awaiting a decision.
Wolves were practically wiped out of the lower 48 states in the 1930s, mainly by trapping and poisoning. The gray wolf was declared a threatened species in 1974. Canadian wolves started recolonizing parts of northwest Montana and Idaho in the early 1980s. In 1994 and 1995, federal wildlife officials transplanted Canadian wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park.
Since then, wolf numbers have grown significantly. So have wolf attacks on livestock and domestic pets, as well as predation on deer, elk and moose.
"The interesting thing about this wolf issue, is here you have a large predator abundant throughout its range worldwide," said Ryan Benson of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, one of the court interveners who favor delisting the wolf. "You have an animal at no risk of extinction, introduced in an area where potentially some of our sensitive ungulate species are at risk of extinction."
Benson said his Salt Lake City-based organization is looking for a congressional solution to the problem. He wants a law blocking use of the Endangered Species Act to stop state game management. States are the best arbiters of how many wolves their land could handle, he said.
"We think you can't use the Endangered Species Act to use a federal judge to second-guess scientific analysis to manage wildlife," Benson said. "In my professional opinion, as long as we're in a position where a judge is in control, we'll never get to that number."
The number question is one that amuses U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf program manager Ed Bangs. Officially, the federal government wants to see at least 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs in the three-state area.
"People simplify things," Bangs said. "They'll say 300 wolves is not enough for recovery, but that's not the recovery goal. That's bogus. Or they'll say the Service promised there'd never be more than 300 wolves. That's not true either."
Montana's management plan wants to keep wolf numbers between 300 and 650. As of December 2009, the state had at least 524.
"Wolves and wolf management have nothing to do with reality," Bangs said. "They're about human values and legal technicalities."
Honnold sees the wolf numbers in a different way. There's another wolf population in the continental United States, in the Great Lakes region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Federal officials set a recovery goal of 1,500 wolves in the Midwest, but only 300 in the Rocky Mountains.
"There's no biological reason to treat different populations of the same species by setting a different bar for recovery," Honnold said. "Our wolves shouldn't be second-class citizens."
Judge Molloy will hear oral arguments from Earthjustice and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on one side, and the U.S., Montana, and Idaho governments joined by Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Safari Club on the other. Both sides hope he issues a ruling before the states launch their second wolf big-game hunting season this fall.
"Whether we win or lose," Honnold said, "the case will decide the fate for several hundred wolves in the Northern Rockies."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.