The legal battle over gray wolves is starting to sound like the joke about a half-filled water glass. Advocates say there aren't enough wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Opponents say there are too many. And they all agree the glass isn't the right size.

Preliminary population estimates found about 1,600 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming at the end of 2009. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stripped federal Endangered Species Act protection from about 1,300 of them in Montana and Idaho while keeping Wyoming's 319 wolves under federal threatened species management.

When U.S. District Court Judge Don Molloy allowed that plan to stand temporarily last fall, part of his reasoning was to see how Montana's and Idaho's wolf big-game hunting seasons played out. A central question in the lawsuit over wolf delisting asks whether the states can manage wolves without wiping them out.

State wildlife officials say the answer is yes. Although Montana hunters shot 72 wolves and Idahoans killed another 145, wolf populations in both states remained stable.

"We've demonstrated hunting can be done in a way that's ethical and responsible," said Carolyn Sime, wolf program manager for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "The potential for hunter-conservationists as a management tool has been demonstrated. That's why delisting has been so important."

That claim is specious, according to Northern Rockies Defense Council wildlife advocate Matt Skoglund. For example, Montana's hunt killed a dozen wolves on the border of Yellowstone National Park and a federal wilderness area, where the animals were popular tourist attractions, not domestic livestock predators.

"Those were the last wolves anyone would want to kill," Skoglund said. "Just because the population remained roughly unchanged from 2008 to 2009 (doesn't mean) the hunts were perfect. We don't think that's an accurate portrayal of the wolf hunt."

Meanwhile, hunting organizations have spread claims that wolves carry a dangerous tapeworm parasite (albeit one also common in coyotes, foxes and domestic dogs) that's in the process of wiping out big-game herds. On its Web site, writers for LoboWatch.com claim the whole tradition of hunting is at stake.

"To save hunting, the shooting and hunting industry is now faced with accepting the phony ‘Wolf Recovery Project' for what it really is - a government-funded attempt to eliminate the need of the hunter to manage wildlife populations," the group's editorial stated. "The wolf is such a proficient predator that with expanded numbers and range, there won't be a surplus of game, especially big game, to need additional management by hunters."

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By the end of 2009, FWP estimated at least 493 wolves in 101 packs were within Montana's borders. That included 34 breeding pairs and 20 packs that were verified for the first time in 2009. The survey also factors for known dead wolves and new pups, but does not include unobserved or "suspected" additional wolves.

The figures nearly match 2008's population survey, which reported 497 wolves in 84 packs with 34 breeding pairs. Sime said the final 2009 estimate published in March would be within 5 percent or 10 percent of the preliminary numbers.

In her affidavit, Sime also observed that Montana wolf numbers stayed stable even though big-game hunting pressure was added to government control killings. Agency kill levels were the same in 2008 and 2009, but new pups offset the deaths.

The state of Montana's management plan assumes a population of about 500 wolves, and allows hunting as long as there are at least 15 breeding pairs. But it hasn't chosen a number for how many wolves are necessary for species survival.

"Our next step is to think more carefully about what a population objective might look like for our state," Sime said. "We haven't set one yet the way we have for other species."

Idaho's wolf population also grew from 88 packs to 94, and 39 breeding pairs to 50, between 2008 and 2009. The state didn't release an overall population number besides its 2008 tally of 846. Its management plan calls for reducing the wolf population down to around 520 wolves.

Idaho pledges to retain a population of 500 wolves and a minimum of 15 breeding pairs, according to its court affidavits. It also will only allow hunting when the population exceeds 20 breeding pairs.

Wyoming's wolf population held steady at about 319 in 2009, with breeding pairs growing from 22 to 27. No hunting is allowed there, although state and federal authorities may kill wolves that are attacking livestock and pets.

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Whatever the numbers, wolf advocates claim both the science and policy behind them are weak. Doug Honnold is the lead attorney for EarthJustice, which is representing 14 conservation groups that sued FWS to keep wolves on the threatened species list.

In his court filings, Honnold cited a number of examples where the Fish and Wildlife Service was changing its own rules.

"In response to comments suggesting a state-by-state delisting approach, FWS stated that ‘we cannot use a boundary between states to subdivide a single biological population in an effort to artificially create a discrete population,' " Honnold quoted from a 2003 Federal Register publication. "Later, in a 2005 wolf rule, FWS reiterated that ‘the act does not allow wolves to be delisted on a state-by-state basis.' "

Wolf advocates also attacked the population threshold, saying the three-state minimum of 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs in the three states relied on a 20-year-old rule that had no scientific backing. They argued that current biology standards call for 500 breeding individuals (250 breeding pairs) for long-term health of a species - which translates to a total population of several thousand animals.

"FWS refused to set a scientifically valid recovery goal because the agency believed it could not reach that goal," Honnold wrote. "This bias turns the concept of recovery on its head and cannot justify delisting."

Molloy now has all the written material he's requested for review. He may either make a decision based on the briefs, or call everyone to his courtroom for face-to-face argument. At stake is not only next fall's wolf hunting seasons, but the long-term management of one of the most controversial predators on the landscape.

"We're trying to navigate the legal process of delisting," Sime said. "That hasn't been done for very many species, and never for one as charismatic as the gray wolf. We're really anxious to fast-forward to the outcome."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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