Thursday's announcement that gray wolves are back under state management in Montana and Idaho also included a warning: The federal government is watching.
"We will continue monitoring gray wolves to ensure those populations remain robust," Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes said during a news conference call. "We will continue to follow the Endangered Species Act in Montana and Idaho."
That was welcome news to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Agency spokesman Ron Aasheim said the department's wolf management program was closely linked to support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The vast majority of our money has been federal money," Aasheim said. "That's paid for management, staff and wolf specialists in the field. We know we have money through September. Now we're working to secure money for the future."
Between 2000 and 2009, FWP has spent $2.3 million in federal contract dollars for wolf programs. It also paid $110,000 a year to the federal Wildlife Services agency to kill wolves suspected in livestock depredations. And in 2009, the one year it got to offer a public wolf hunt, FWP took in $325,935 in wolf license revenue. All that money went into the agency's general license fund.
The federal government has been responsible for wolf populations since 1974, when the animal was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 1995 and '96, FWS transplanted small groups of Canadian wolves in and around Yellowstone National Park. Today, there are roughly 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, plus a few dozen in parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah.
As wolf numbers grew, so did depredations on big game and domestic livestock. The Bush administration tried to delist the northern Rocky Mountains wolf population in 2008, and the Obama administration finalized the move after a brief review in 2009. But it left Wyoming under federal protection because of disputes over that state's unacceptable management plan.
A group of 14 environmental groups sued, claiming it was scientifically improper to divide a species' natural range by state lines. They won their case in U.S. District Court last August. In April, a bipartisan group of Montana and Idaho congressional members amended the 2011 budget bill to defuse that ruling and reinstate the 2009 delisting decision.
That maneuver has also been challenged in court. On Thursday, four wolf advocate groups filed two lawsuits claiming the delisting law unconstitutionally blocked further court review. That process is just getting started.
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Meanwhile, Montana is still working out the details of a 2011 wolf hunt. The tentative plan calls for a quota of 220 wolves spread across three zones. A four-county area of southwestern Montana along the Idaho border will get special attention, with a limit of 54 wolves. Northwest Montana will be allowed 123 wolves, while the south-central part of the state will have a limit of 43.
Idaho officials moved much quicker to put wolves in the crosshairs. The state plans to kill up to 50 wolves along the Montana border, possibly by aerial shooting, while there's still snow on the ground.
Idaho had requested permission for such a plan from the federal government while the wolf was still protected under the Endangered Species Act, using what's known as the 10-J rule. Thursday's delisting of the wolf made that permission moot. On Friday, the Idaho Statesman reported the state had $50,000 budgeted for aircraft time and could start the killing later this month.
Montana also was requesting a 10-J hunt along the Bitterroot Mountains, where wolves are believed to have pushed elk herds to dangerously low numbers. Aasheim said the Montana hunt would probably parallel the regular big-game hunting season this fall, with no early agency action on the planning calendar.
The 2011 hunting season has a goal of leaving 425 wolves in Montana. That would include wolves killed by hunting or natural causes as well as new wolf pups born. There are about 566 wolves in Montana today, and the state expects the population to bounce somewhere between 328 and 657.
The range is wide because there are so many unknowns remaining in wolf management, Aasheim said. No one is sure how successful hunters can be using fair-chase methods after wolves become accustomed to hunting pressure. Hunting might also quickly remove wolves prone to attacking domestic livestock, reducing the conflicts with ranchers.
Idaho has an official estimate of 705 wolves, although state authorities argue the number should be closer to 1,000. The state stopped participating in wolf management last October in protest of the federal government's inability to resolve the wolf's recovered status. Idaho Fish and Game Department spokesman Ed Mitchell said state biologists were now back in the woods, trying to get their records up to date.
Both states are expected to maintain at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs or face greater scrutiny from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Falling below 100 wolves or 10 breeding pairs could result in the wolf being returned to federal protection. Federal oversight of the states' management will last at least five years.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.