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Wolves Fail to Recover Their Reputation

As officials debate removing species from the endangered list, ranchers await their chance to shoot. But the change may not happen.

June 01, 2003|Becky Bohrer | Associated Press Writer

CODY, Wyo — CODY, Wyo. -- Although Dick Geving rarely sees gray wolves on his northern Wyoming ranch, he believes that they killed 14 calves last year, as well as a number of area elk.

If he saw a wolf, Geving said, he'd hope to have a gun and the right to use it to protect his livelihood -- no questions asked.

"If we would be able to use reasonable force to control them, at least we'd have a fighting chance," said Geving, a rancher and outfitter near Yellowstone National Park.

About 660 wolves now roam Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, enough for federal wildlife officials to declare their recovery a success and to move toward removing them from the endangered species list in those states and perhaps much of the West.

But worries over how well the three states can manage wolves if the federal government turns that responsibility over to them, coupled with the certainty of lawsuits and much passion about whether wolves even ought to be here, already threaten to stall delisting, possibly for years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to propose delisting this year, with the goal of having the wolves taken off the endangered species list in 2004 -- 30 years after they were added.

When and whether that process begins, though, is largely up to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the only states with established wolf populations in the Northern Rockies.

Before delisting can be proposed, wildlife managers in those states must prove to a panel of scientists and federal wildlife officials that gray wolves will continue thriving under their control.

The Fish and Wildlife Service met its recovery goal for the gray wolves last year. That goal -- 30 breeding pairs in the three states for three consecutive years -- is far exceeded by the current 43 breeding pairs. The states are basing their management plan on a target of 15 pairs within each state.

The federal wildlife agency has given tentative approval to Idaho's plan, which provides for, among other things, managing wolves like black bears and mountain lions by allowing regulated hunting at certain times.

Officials in Montana recently released their proposed plan, which also would allow some regulated hunting and permit ranchers to shoot wolves that threaten their livestock.

Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf-recovery coordinator in Helena, Mont., calls Montana's proposal "state of the art, a class act."

It's Wyoming's approach that has some wildlife officials and environmentalists worried. Some suggest that if changes are not made to that state's plan, wolves won't be delisted anytime soon.

"Wyoming," said Nina Fascione, vice president of species conservation with Defenders of Wildlife, "has definitely thrown a wrench into the plans for delisting."

State wildlife officials are still working on a management plan, but the Wyoming Legislature overwhelmingly backed a proposal that would designate gray wolves as trophy animals in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and adjacent wilderness areas. It is illegal to hunt trophy game without a state-issued license, and federal law prohibits hunting wildlife in national parks. But in the rest of the state, wolves would be considered predators and could be killed with few restrictions.

If the number of breeding pairs fell below 15 in Wyoming, the predator status would be suspended until their numbers recovered, officials said.

The Legislature left it to state Game and Fish officials to fill in the details.

And, officials said, there are plenty: How will the state control how many wolves are taken? What sort of monitoring will it do? Where will the wolves have no protection, and in how big an area will shooting be regulated?

"Until we know the answers, we can't make a decision on whether it's acceptable or not," Bangs said. "The service is a strong supporter of hunting; we think that's an important part of this. But it can't be the 1880 Wild West again, with people running around with poison and guns. Those days are gone forever."

The bill is complex and at times confusing. The Game and Fish Department has asked the attorney general to interpret its language, more clearly spelling out for state wildlife managers what options they have in crafting the plan, said John Emmerich, assistant chief in the department's wildlife division.

Officials expect to have a plan ready this summer and "feel the framework is sufficient to meet recovery goals," he said.

The dual classification of trophy game and predator is meant to keep wolves within a particular area -- in and around the parks. It is also meant to give ranchers like Geving, who bitterly fought wolf reintroduction eight years ago, another option to protect their property, officials said.

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