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The bullets may remain in the box, but angry words continue to fly at Montana's gray wolves.

Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg spoke for many wolf-hunt supporters on Thursday when he said "there's something psychologically wrong" with a wolf that killed 55 of his goats but didn't eat any. But he also raised eyebrows with claims that Idaho wildlife officials aren't going to enforce federal wolf protections - something Idaho officials deny.

And Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation president David Allen has asked Montana officials to quit negotiating with the conservation groups that successfully blocked wolf hunting in the Rocky Mountains this fall. But Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks legal counsel Bob Lane said the agency will follow all possible paths to winning state-level wolf management, both in and out of the courtroom.

Rehberg told a Safari Club International audience in Missoula he likes what he described as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's plan to make Idaho a "sanctuary state" - where game wardens ignore the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, comparing it to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's declaration that his city is a sanctuary from federal immigration laws.

Rehberg also said he heard a story about an Idaho game warden visiting a hunting camp and telling the hunters that wolf regulations would not be enforced in that state.

However, Idaho officials on Friday denied any awareness of such a policy.

"Any talk about making Idaho a safe haven or declaring an open season - I don't think that's the case at all," Idaho Fish and Game communications bureau chief Mike Keckler said.

Otter's spokesman, Jon Hanian, also had not heard anything about making Idaho a sanctuary state for wolf killing. He did say the administration is preparing a statement for next week regarding recent talks with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials about a possible agreement allowing state management of wolves.

"He (Otter) wanted to convey a sense of urgency," Hanian said. "We're having unacceptable impacts, and we're at a point where we need to see some action."

Many of the roughly 150 people at the Safari Club Montana Chapter meeting nodded in agreement with Rehberg's pledge to make wolf management a state's rights issue, free of the Endangered Species Act.

But the comments didn't sit well with Ben Lamb of the Montana Wildlife Federation, one of the state's largest hunting and conservation groups.

"It kind of makes us look like mouth-breathing rednecks here," Lamb said. "And it gives credence to everything the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and Defenders of Wildlife say about the hunting community. It really polarizes the issue."

And that could hurt Montana's chances to regain a public wolf hunt, Lamb said. That effort is moving forward on many fronts. The state is appealing U.S. District Judge Don Molloy's decision blocking the hunt. It is also asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for three kinds of exemptions to the Endangered Species Act that might allow limited or statewide wolf hunts as early as this winter. And FWP commissioners have voiced support for congressional changes to the Endangered Species Act.

Now, too, the agency is negotiating with EarthJustice, the law firm representing 13 conservation groups that won the case relisting the wolf.

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That last tactic drew fire from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

"If you're going to negotiate something that's only a Band-Aid or going straight back to court, why do it?" Allen said on Friday. The confidential talks threatened to "negotiate the science," he said, which would put all the scientific evidence of wolf populations in doubt.

"We believe the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requirement of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves per state is a pretty solid foundation of where we should be," Allen said. "Those other numbers, like 2,000 or 3,000 needed for genetic connectivity, those numbers are made up. They're pulled out of the air. There's no science behind them."

The 2,000- to 3,000-wolf threshold comes from studies in conservation biology that use mathematical models to predict how many animals are necessary for a genetically healthy population. While it has been cited by wolf supporters as a possible goal, Defenders of Wildlife Northern Rockies representative Suzanne Stone said it wasn't where the problem should focus.

"That number is a general threshold in conservation biology, not a specific number," Stone said on Friday. "It didn't look at wolves in the Northern Rockies. We're saying there needs to be a joint effort bringing together the best scientists to decide how many we need to maintain connectivity. We don't believe 100 in each state is enough. We know the number is somewhere above that. The Montana plan is very similar to what we've been asking for."

And the Montana plan is what Montana will stick to in the talks, FWP attorney Lane said. That means keeping wolves a viable population at a level that won't destroy other big-game species.

"We're not afraid to talk to people," Lane told the Safari Club International audience. "But we won't give away our management objectives."

Lane said there were three other possible ways to solve the wolf problem. The states might win their appeal before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, although he didn't think that was likely. Congress might pass one of several bills changing the Endangered Species Act's protection of wolves, but he didn't hold much hope for that either. Or Wyoming could change its wolf management plan to conform with U.S. Fish and Wildlife standards.

The federal wildlife agency found Wyoming's wolf plan so different and inadequate compared to Montana's and Idaho's, it kept the Cowboy State under federal supervision while it gave the other two local wolf control. But Judge Molloy agreed with wolf supporters that the Endangered Species Act doesn't allow management of a free-ranging animal to be chopped up by state boundaries.

"You can't push a rope, but you can help pull," Lane said of getting Wyoming to conform with the federal standards. "I think that's the first and best way."

Meanwhile, elk numbers in some parts of the state approach critically low levels. FWP Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson told the Safari Club International audience that while adult elk numbers in the Bitterroot and Mineral County areas are holding steady, the calf and yearling population is the lowest ever recorded. If that trend continues, it could result in a complete collapse of elk herds along the Montana-Idaho border.

"The cow-calf ratio is the engine that makes the elk herd work," Thompson said. "We don't have time to wait. The next two years are critical."

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

 

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