HELENA - Montana officials, ranchers, and hunters frustrated by a federal judge's ruling that restored Endangered Species Act protections for wolves say it may be time to bypass the courts with congressional action.
Members of the newly formed coalition lashed out Friday at their environmentalist foes and said it no longer makes sense to just keeping fighting in endless courtroom battles. The group said it seems like the end of one legal move just leads to another.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said it still plans to appeal U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's ruling earlier this month that blocked Montana and Idaho's wolf management plans and their fall hunts.
But at the first meeting of a group the FWP organized, state officials said they will be drafting a new strategy for getting more state control over wolves. The ideas will then be circulated to the groups in the new coalition for their approval.
"I think it's important to have a coalition so that especially our congressional delegation understands it's Montana-wide, this concern," said FWP director Joe Maurier.
Maurier said his agency and biologists believe that by any measure, wolves in the region have recovered from being endangered. Now he said they threaten to run roughshod over ranchers and the rest of the ecosystem because of the environmentalists that sued to block state hunts of the animals.
"We have plenty of wolves to meet every test out there, to meet every bar," he said. "So what is the motivation at this point behind the lawsuit. What is the agenda?"
Michael Leahy, regional director for Defenders of Wildlife, said the conservation groups behind the lawsuit want an updated scientific analysis to determine how many wolves are needed before they are considered to be recovered. He said a target figure of 450 is not good enough.
"There is no science behind that number and that is what the issue is real about," he said. "That is why conservation groups keep pushing for a better deal for wolves."
Leahy said his group has not established a number of wolves it believes are needed.
He predicted the FWP-led coalition would find little success with its strategy.
"To legislatively exempt wolves from the endangered species act is likely to be futile," he said. "There is just too much support for wildlife and wolves around the country."
At Friday's meeting, angry coalition members said they don't trust the environmentalists to strike a bargain on any wolf management number that would prevent future lawsuits from other environmentalists.
The group said it will also be seeking formal permission for some type of "conservation hunt," even though federal officials have verbally told them it would not be possible. They will also be seeking congressional solutions.
U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, is backing legislation in the House that would completely remove wolves from consideration under the Endangered Species Act, a strategy considered to be a long shot politically.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus has recently said he plans to introduce legislation to put wolves back under state management some other way.
Baucus and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, both Democrats, said they would be listening closely to the concerns of the new coalition before doing so.
"Jon believes wolves have to be managed, and they need to be managed in a way that works for Montana," Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said. "He looks forward to working with organizations who are teaming up to find a plan that works."
Bill Merrill, with Montana Sportsman For Fish and Wildlife, said the legal battle won't end. Even if they appeal and win on the ruling this month that barred state-specific management of wolves, he said the court case will move forward on other issues.
"It's not a wildlife management issue anymore," he said. "It is political posturing and politics at this point, and an unending supply of money to these groups to file lawsuits."