Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves officially return to state control Thursday, when their removal from Endangered Species Act protection is published in the Federal Register.
That means Montana and Idaho hunters will be back in the business of controlling wolf populations this fall. A bipartisan rider in the 2011 federal budget bill ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reinstate its 2009 wolf delisting decision and immunized it from further court challenges.
"The fact is, after years of lawsuits, the delisting got stuck in unacceptable gridlock, acrimony and dispute," Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in a conference call Wednesday morning. "It was consuming resources that could be spent recovering for other species."
There are about 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The population has seen dramatic growth since wolves were experimentally reintroduced in and around Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Hunters have blamed wolves for steep declines in elk herds along the Montana-Idaho border and near Yellowstone, while ranchers have protested depredations on their cattle and sheep.
Wolf supporters claim the charismatic animal has improved wildlife habitat by bringing balance to oversized big-game herds. They also argue wolf watchers have contributed millions of dollars to the states' tourism business.
The Thursday rule publication also delists wolves in parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah, but keeps Wyoming wolves under federal supervision. That could change soon after Wyoming and FWS officials settle a new wolf management plan for that state. Wyoming's previous proposal allowed wolves to be shot on sight in most of the state.
"In a nutshell, we believe the wolf populations in the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes have recovered so they occupy all suitable habitat," said Gary Frazer, FWS assistant director for endangered species. "We know wolves can travel long distances, and may move out of core recovery areas. But we have identified areas with potential for recovery, and they've occupied."
The effort to block further court review will itself be challenged in court, according to Michael Garrity of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
"We're going to challenge the delisting on constitutional grounds," Garrity said Wednesday. "They're trying to play legislative and judicial roles - be both branches of government. That's a separation-of-powers issue."
Garrity said AWR would be joined by Friends of the Clearwater, WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project in the suit, which would be filed the same day the delisting decision is published in the Federal Register. Those four groups were part of a 14-member coalition that sued to block the 2009 delisting decision. The quartet also refused to go along with a settlement negotiated between federal officials and 10 of the plaintiffs.
U.S. District Judge Don Molloy overruled the 2009 delisting last August because it treated Wyoming differently from Montana and Idaho, even though the wolves were moving across all three states. In Wednesday's announcement, Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes said that legal weakness would be fixed.
"The controversy is whether you look biologically at range regardless of state lines, or you go with a state-by-state approach," Hayes said. "Our inclination is to use the biological range approach rather than state border approach. Wolves do cover a lot of territory. If you basically identify the range, and recognize the wolf is delisted in that range, you don't get to those questions of ‘If there is a wolf in state X, Y or Z, is it delisted or not?' "
Because the wolf delisting was ordered by Congress, it must still use state lines to govern management as the 2009 decision ordered. But future endangered species decisions would be made using the new definition of an animal's "significant range."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.