Stuck in the wolf quagmire
by Cat Urbigkit, Pinedale Online!
January 20, 2007
The quagmire over future plans for the management of wolves in Wyoming shows no sign of easing, and although state and federal officials keep talking, each side seems to be showing few signs of actually listening to the other. What is often left out of the discussion is that maybe the proposed solutions are actually “bad medicine” and that the current situation may be the best of all the options put forward so far.
With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unwilling to move forward with delisting until Wyoming changes its state law and wolf management plan, and acting on their belief that delisting of wolves is needed, several state legislators have taken the initiative to try to get the ball rolling.
FWS has criticized the existing state wolf law and its resulting management plan, with one major point of contention being that the wolf would be classified as a predator in most of the state, outside of western Wyoming’s national parks and wilderness areas where wolves would be classified as trophy game animals. The only way to change this provision is to change the law that created this classification.
Senator Bruce Burns of Sheridan and Representative Pat Childers of Cody have drafted a wolf management bill that is now on file and ready for consideration at the legislature.
Senate File 135 is viewed as a “placeholder” bill – one that was put in place so that legislators would have a bill at the ready to revise and amend if state negotiations resulted in a compromise. With deadlines in place for bills to make their way through the legislative process, legislators argued that the placeholder was needed.
So what does the placeholder bill actually say? The bill would classify wolves as trophy game animals within national parks in western Wyoming and within any area so designated by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. So instead of the limited area prescribed by law, this legislation would allow the WG&F Commission to decide.
In addition, SF135 would call for the state to manage wolves in a manner to “reasonably ensure” at least seven breeding pairs of gray wolves are located in the state outside of national parks. The legislation is based on the assumption that another eight pairs would be maintained in the parks, for a total of 15 breeding pairs. Instead of managing for a certain number of wolf packs, management would focus on maintaining breeding pairs of wolves. The draft legislation calls for a two-year budget allocation to WG&F of $2.4 million for wolf management.
Childers and Burns are also co-sponsoring House Bill 213, calling for WG&F to monitor wolves with GPS collars and authorizing the agency “to use aggressive management techniques with gray wolves, including setting liberal seasons and bag limits.”
The timeline draft legislation must follow in order remain viable includes a Feb. 2 deadline to be reported out of committee from its house of origin, with several other deadlines soon following in this 37-day legislative session.
FWS submitted a written proposal to the state, calling for an expanded area where wolves would be managed as trophy game animals. The proposal calls for the state to provide for seven breeding pairs of wolves outside the national parks and for a trophy game area encompassing the chunk of northwestern Wyoming to as far south as Highway 189/91 at Pinedale and to the east as far as Cody. This area includes the known home ranges of most of the state’s 15 breeding wolf packs that FWS has documented residing outside of the national parks.
After meeting with state officials in early January, FWS Regional Director Mitch King sent back a seven-page letter responding to specific questions that arose during the discussions.
In the letter, King explained: that Wyoming will need to manage generally for seven breeding pairs “with the understanding that if something drastic should happen” with the wolf population in the national parks, “Wyoming will need to step up and assure that the numbers do not drop below 10 breeding pairs in the entire state.”
King pledged that his agency would be willing to consider “minor modifications in the boundary of the trophy game area “to avoid cities” if the state made the request.
“We are also willing to discuss any technical modifications that you may feel appropriate while assuring that pack home ranges are protected and boundaries are relatively easy to delineate,” King noted.
With all the controversy over wolves, their management and the future, western Wyoming livestock producers are left to ponder which would be better:
• living in an area where wolves are listed as predators and can be shot on sight, but with there being no compensation for livestock losses, and no agency responsibility to respond to problem wolves;
• living in an area where wolves are protected as trophy game animals, where they can’t be shot on sight, but compensation for damages would be provided; or
• continue the existing situation, in which wolves are managed by the federal government, but a limited compensation program exists and FWS has a responsibility to respond to chronic livestock predation problems.
What western Wyoming livestock producers have said they would like to see in any state wolf management legislation hasn’t been proposed. Components needed to satisfy producers include provisions to:
• mandate that WG&F must lethally control wolves that kill livestock and that occupy areas where chronic wolf predation occurs (except when owners don’t want control actions, or when actions would lead to relisting of the wolf population);
• mandate that WG&F respond to wolf predation within 48 hours;
• provide for a compensation factor for calves of 6:1, and a similar factor for sheep kills;
• allow for aerial gunning of wolves in trophy game areas.
While negotiations apparently continue, the state has a lawsuit pending in federal court, seeking an order directing FWS to proceed with delisting the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains.
Last July, the federal wildlife agency rejected Wyoming’s petition for delisting, continuing steadfast in its demands that for delisting to proceed, wolves must be classified as trophy game animals; that the state commit to maintaining some wolf packs in northwestern Wyoming outside the national park units; and that the state change its definition of what constitutes a wolf pack so that Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming all use similar definitions.
The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains is a total of 30 breeding pairs and at least 300 wolves, with Montana, Idaho and Wyoming each sustaining a minimum of 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves for a minimum of three consecutive years. This goal was attained in 2002. Last fall FWS estimated the tri-state area contains a minimum of 1,229 wolves and 87 breeding pairs, including 309 wolves in Wyoming, with 24 potential breeding pairs.
FWS has now pledged to publish a proposed rule to delist the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf distinct population segment, or a significant portion of the range thereof, by the end of January. FWS then has 12 months to issue its delisting decision.
“If Wyoming adopts a satisfactory wolf management plan, it is our intention to reopen the public comment period on the proposed rule to be released this month in order to accept public comments on our determination that such a plan satisfies the requirements of the Endangered Species Act,” King wrote.
In response to state questions, King acknowledged that should wolves be delisted, then fall below the numbers called for in the plans, they could be relisted. But instead of being classified as a “non-essential, experimental population” (as currently classified), wolves would then be listed as either a full-fledged threatened or endangered species.
FWS also burst the bubble of the state’s hope that once delisting occurs, but while the expected legal battle is being waged, FWS would reduce the number of wolf packs in the state to about 15. King responded, “I do not think the Service will be actively managing to limit wolves to 15 breeding pairs, nor would we be managing to remove wolves causing only wildlife problems.”