June 3, 2009

Montana, Wyoming File Lawsuits Over Wolf Hunting

The bitter debate over gray wolves in Wyoming and Montana will be decided by a pair of federal judges that will determine which states in the Northern Rockies have enough wolves to allow public hunting.

According to the Associated Press, a lawsuit filed on Tuesday by environmental groups will seek to restore protections for more than 1,300 wolves in Montana and Idaho. In April, the Obama administration upheld a Bush-era decision to take wolves off the endangered species list in those two states.

However, wolf hunts slated to begin this fall and a plan to remove all the predators from part of north central Idaho could be blocked if the lawsuit is successful.

A separate lawsuit in Wyoming by attorney General Bruce Salzburg on Tuesday asked a federal judge in Cheyenne to clear the way for hunts in his state. Salzburg rejected claims by federal officials that local laws were too weak to protect Wyoming's 300 wolves.

After being wiped out across the lower 48 states in the early 20th century by hunting and government-sponsored poisoning, gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974. There are now an estimated 1,645 wolves in the Northern Rockies after an intensive reintroduction program.

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there's absolutely no question the population is fully recovered.

"There are wolves moving all over the place," he added.

Despite strong objections from ranchers and many politicians, wolves were returned to Wyoming, Idaho and parts of Montana in the mid-1990s, in an effort that has cost the government some $30 million.

The complaints in Wyoming have grown as wolves have taken a toll on livestock and big game herds. Many ranchers argue that the number of wolves shot by federal wildlife agents "” 264 last year alone "” has not been enough to curb record the high livestock killings in 2008.

Nearly 90 percent of Wyoming has been declared a "predator zone" where wolves can be shot on sight. But that law is superseded by federal protections as of now.

Wyoming House Speaker Colin Simpson called for protection of the state's wildlife and livestock in the face of little help from the federal government.

"If the only way to do that is through litigation, then that's how we'll have to proceed," he added.

The agency had no choice but to reject Wyoming's wolf management plan, according to Bangs, who said last summer, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula pointed to the state's predator zone as a prime reason for throwing out an earlier federal proposal to take wolves off the endangered list.

Bangs said the Wyoming plan folded like a house of cards the first time anybody took a hard look at it.

Federal officials in Montana and Idaho say the threat of extinction has passed and the population is large enough to survive on its own.

But conservationists disagree, as environmental groups and the Humane Society of the United States argue that the wolves' biological success could quickly be reversed absent federal oversight.

Jenny Harbine, an attorney with Earthjustice who helped write the environmentalists' lawsuit, said Idaho in particular has shown an eagerness to aggressively reduce its wolf population.

"Until states commit to managing their wolf populations in a responsible and sustainable manner, federal protections remain crucial," she said.


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