Wolf Management Tensions Grow: Idaho Seeks to Kill Scores and Montana Gov Threatens to Defy Protections

Gray wolf. Photo courtesy USFWS

The controversy over gray wolves in the Northern Rockies is heating up. Federal biologists deem the animal recovered, but for various reasons it remains on the federal endangered species list, to the frustration of officials in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

In Montana, for instance, lawmakers are pushing forward a slate of bills calling for decreasing protections. Last week Sen. John Tester (D-MT) inserted language into the Senate's Continuing Resolution—the bill that funds the entire national budget—declaring the gray wolf a recovered species in Montana and Idaho, the Missoulian reports. Meanwhile Mont. Gov. Brian Schweitzer last month encouraged landowners and state agents to kill the predators in defiance of the Endangered Species Act.

"If there is a dang wolf in your corral attacking your pregnant cow, shoot that wolf. And if its pals are in the corral, shoot them, too," Schweitzer told Reuters. "I cannot continue to ignore the crying need for workable wolf management while Montana waits, and waits, and waits," he wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

At the same time federal wildlife officials are considering allowing Idaho to kill 75 percent of a wolf population blamed for decimating elk herds in a popular hunting area. Packs there would be thinned from about 80 animals to new fewer than 20 over the next five years. It would be the largest government-sanctioned wolf culling in that state since the animals were reintroduced to the Rockies in the mid-1990s, Reuters reports.

Greg Breining delves into whether Congress will imperil the wolf again—and the very act that has saved it, in the latest issue of Audubon.

From “Wolf Pact” in the March-April issue:

Federal biologists deem the gray wolf recovered. Yet instead of being a success story, its status is mired in controversy. Despite attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to return management to states, the wolf remains on the federal endangered species list.

That legal limbo has stirred several members of Congress to take matters into their own hands. With Republicans, who have been generally more hostile to continued endangered species listing for the wolf, winning Senate seats and taking control of the House, there will be even greater legislative resolve to strip the federal protection afforded since 1974.

Northern Rockies and Great Lakes populations now far exceed Endangered Species Act goals. In Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan wolves number about 4,000; about 1,700 inhabit Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. “Biologically the wolves recovered a long time ago in both areas, but the problem has always been technicalities,” says David Mech, USGS Biological Resources Division senior scientist and world-renowned wolf biologist.

For example, the 2009 Federal District Court decision that relisted Great Lakes wolves hinged on the FWS’s failure to hold public hearings. Most recently, the agency delisted Montana’s and Idaho’s wolves but kept federal protection in Wyoming, which has failed to provide a satisfactory management plan. The federal district court in Montana didn’t buy the piecemeal delisting and relisted the wolf in August.

Groups including Defenders of Wildlife, which brought the suit that relisted the western wolf, say Congressional meddling would not only endanger the animal but also weaken the Endangered Species Act by introducing politics into listing decisions.

Others argue that failing to delist a recovered but controversial species will create a dangerous backlash while diverting resources from creatures in greater need. “It really worries me,” says Daniel MacNulty, a University of Minnesota wildlife ecologist who studies Yellowstone’s wolves. “I think species that really are endangered [like the wolverine] will have more difficulty getting on the list as a consequence of people’s experience with the wolf.”

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