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Feds delist gray wolf in region that includes Montana

by Hagadone News Network & Jim Mann
| March 10, 2009 12:00 AM

There had been uncertainty about how the Obama administration would proceed, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Friday the decision to remove gray wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species.

The delisting proposed by Salazar mirrors a move by the Bush administration in January that was suspended in order for the new administration to review. It will apply to wolves in the western Great Lakes region and in Montana and Idaho, but not in Wyoming.

“There was a lot of uncertainty primarily because this was an innovative approach to the Endangered Species Act itself,” said Montana wolf recovery coordinator Carolyn Sime, referring to the official separation of Wyoming from the recovered Northern Rockies wolf population. “It demonstrates a higher level of flexibility. It’s innovative and it hasn’t really been done in the past.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that Wyoming law and its wolf management plan “are not sufficient to conserve its portion of the Rocky Mountain wolf population,” according to a press release announcing the decision.

“It’s definitely a carrot for Montana and a stick for Wyoming,” Sime said.

“This is what we worked for,” said Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “We’re pleased the new administration agrees that Montana has done its part to ensure that the wolves are established and secure in this part of the Northern Rockies. Now it’s time for the state to take over management of this wildlife species.”

While delisting has substantial support from Montana’s political leadership, sporting organizations and some conservation groups, there was a wave of press releases from environmental groups Friday criticizing the move and promising legal action to stop it.

“We are disappointed that the government is relying on a flawed, rushed delisting rule from the Bush era,” said Melanie Stein of the Sierra Club. “Removing federal protections from wolves will leave them at the mercy of aggressive state plans that treat wolves as pests rather than a valuable wildlife resource.”

Suzanne Stone, the northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the delisting proposal “still fails to adequately address biological concerns about the lack of genetic exchange among wolf populations in the northern Rockies and it still fails to address concerns with the states’ wolf management plans and regulations that undermine a sustainable wolf population by killing too many wolves.”

Delisting advocates stress that the wolf recovery goals for the region, in terms of wolf numbers, have been met every year since 2002.

Sime said the state’s annual wolf report should be complete within a week, and it will likely have a minimum estimate of the state wolf population ranging from 450 to 500 wolves. That would amount to a 10 to 15 percent increase over 2007 numbers, after several years of annual population growth in the 20 to 30 percent range.

Those numbers will likely be included in a delisting rule that will be published in the Federal Register in the next two weeks, she said.

After a 30-day comment period, and barring any legal action, the delisting would take effect and Montana would assume management of wolves. The state would then implement a wolf hunt running in tandem with big-game hunting seasons, with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission setting quotas this summer to limit wolf harvests in four hunting districts. Quotas would be set every year based on various factors.

Farmers and ranchers would also have far greater latitude in defending livestock that are threatened by wolves. In northwest Montana, where wolves now have full “endangered” status, livestock owners cannot take lethal action against wolves even if they are seen attacking their animals.

(Jim Mann is a reporter for the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell).