October 4, 2010

Should Congress Step Into The Wolf Debate?

Lawmakers say it's time for Congress to step in again two decades after the federal government spent a half-million dollars to study the reintroduction of gray wolves to the Northern Rockies.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that lawmakers are proposing to bypass the Endangered Species Act and lift protections for today's booming wolf population.

Critics say the move would undercut one of the nation's premiere environmental laws and allow for the unchecked killing of wolves across the West.

However, bitterness against the predator is flaring as livestock killings increase and some big game herds dwindle.

Senators from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah want to strip wolves of their endangered status by force.

"When they brought wolves to Idaho, the Legislature voted against it, the governor didn't want it and the Congressional delegation didn't want it," Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch told AP. "We didn't want them in the first place. But we are prepared to deal with them as we see fit."

Sixty-six wolves were brought from Canada to Central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park after the reintroduction study.  The population hit the original recovery benchmark of 300 animals a decade ago, yet they remain officially endangered.

About 1,700 wolves now roam six states in the U.S.

Wildlife advocates warn the attempt to strong-arm a public hunt through Congressional action would set a dangerous precedent for other endangered species. 

"It's comparable to throwing an individual species off of Noah's ark," Doug Honnold, a Montana attorney representing groups that won an Aug. 5 court ruling that returned wolves to the endangered list, told AP.

No state has proposed getting rid of wolves entirely, despite individual ranchers calling to do so.  Montana and Idaho have plans to reduce their populations by 15 percent and about 40 percent respectively.

Those states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appealed the August ruling last week.  A final ruling could take years.

There are also proposals to hold wolf hunts with the animals still listed as endangered.  That has gotten good reception so far from federal wildlife officials.

State officials say that intervention by Congress may be the only viable option that is left.

Environmentalists have vowed to lobby against several wolf bills introduced during the past two weeks.  Lawmakers are also split along party lines over which states should be allowed to hunt wolves.

Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester, Montana Democrats, would leave wolves endangered in Wyoming, which has a shoot-on-sight law for wolves across most of the state.

That Wyoming law played a pivotal role in the August court ruling and another in 2008 that reversed a previous attempt to take wolves off of the endangered list.

"If Wyoming doesn't want to put forward a management plan that works, that's Wyoming's fault," Baucus told the news agency. Tester said Wyoming "hasn't wanted to play" and suggested that Montana could not wait for its southern neighbor to change its mind given ongoing livestock losses from wolf attacks.

Republicans are trying to delist the wolves across the lower 48 states, including Wyoming.  Idaho's delegation has another bill that includes only that state and Montana.

Senators from both parties across the region met last week in part to resolve the Wyoming issue.  However, a common front has yet to emerge.

Wolves were taken off the endangered list for over a year before the August court ruling.  Hunters in Montana and Idaho killed 260 of the animals during that time.

Environmentalists described the shootings as unprecedented for a species just off the endangered list.  Among the wolves killed were members of a well-known Yellowstone National Park pack that crossed onto Montana land.

A count at the end of 2009 found that the region's wolf population rose slightly last year, despite the hunts.  Wildlife officials said the increase was proof the states could show restraint.

Government wildlife agents regularly retaliate against wolves that attack livestock by shooting them from aircraft.

About 270 were shot last year and over 1,300 have been killed since Congress' initial involvement.

"Government agents killing wolves with shotguns from helicopters "” that's not the model we had of conservation we had in mind," said Carolyn Sime, the head of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' wolf program.

"It took an act of Congress to direct the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study reintroduction. Maybe that's fitting as a way to resolve this," she said.