State game agencies and private citizens would be allowed to kill federally protected gray wolves that threatened dogs or seriously decreased deer, elk or moose populations in parts of the northern Rocky Mountains, under a federal rule announced Thursday.
The regulation comes a month ahead of the expected federal decision to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list, which would allow wolves to be hunted. That decision is likely to face protracted litigation.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services officials said Thursday that the revised provision would allow for states to deal with areas where wolf activity is affecting wildlife populations while delisting is tied up in court.
"This rule, if it goes forward, could provide a safety valve for the states during the two to three years while the delisting goes through litigation," said Ed Bangs, Fish and Wildlife's wolf recovery coordinator. "Whether this rule ever gets used or not, who knows. But if you're protecting your dog on a Forest Service hiking trail, you'll be glad this rule exists."
Environmentalists interpreted the rule as an attempt to skirt delays expected from delisting litigation.
"The shame of it is we spent so much time and effort trying to recover wolves, and were within spitting distance of recovery," said Doug Honnold, managing attorney for the Northern Rockies office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm. "But instead of securing those recovery gains and building on them, Fish and Wildlife Services is throwing them away. . . . They want the right to kill wolves willy-nilly."
Honnold said he would file suit and seek an injunction against the rule on behalf of environmental organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Once ranging from central Mexico to the Arctic, gray wolves were killed off for decades, and their population had virtually disappeared from the American West by the 1930s. They were listed as endangered in 1974.
Since they were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996, their population has spread throughout the northern Rockies region, swelling to more than 1,500, and it's growing by about 24% annually, according to wildlife officials.
The rule issued Thursday relies on a revision of endangered-species regulations that allows lethal force against "nonessential experimental populations" like the gray wolf under certain circumstances. The section was created as a compromise with ranchers who were worried about a growing wolf population preying on livestock. Thursday's revision was the third change to the gray-wolf-reintroduction rule since it was written in 1994.
Currently, gray wolves cannot be killed unless they are preying on livestock or on a dog on private property, or are the main culprit behind dwindling populations of animals such as deer, elk and moose.
The rule change issued Thursday would ease the burden of proof to justify a wolf kill. State agencies would only need to show that wolf predation had been one factor among others for a decreasing population of ungulates, such as elk, deer or moose. A wolf threatening a dog also could be killed. None of the rule provisions apply to wolves within national parks or outside central Idaho and the greater Yellowstone area.
A state agency that wants to kill wolves preying on ungulate populations would have to file a lengthy wolf management plan with Fish and Wildlife. Officials in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana said they had no immediate plan to do so.
"The state of Idaho is more interested in delisting than in changes to [this] rule, which is kind of a stopgap, or an interim measure . . . should delisting be delayed," said Steve Nadeau, an Idaho Fish and Game official who oversees the state's wolf program. "We have no plan to use [the rule] unless wolves are not delisted anytime soon."
The new rule is scheduled to take effect in about a month, around the time the delisting decision is to be announced.
Bangs, who helped lead the reintroduction of gray wolves when the tri-state area had about 10 wolves, said that most elk and other hoofed big-game animal populations were not greatly affected by wolves and that more wolves -- about 150 annually -- probably would be killed for preying on livestock.
"This is absolutely not a get-out-of-jail-free card for wolf killing," Bangs said. "This is a highly structured scientific-based process to address real problems. . . . It won't change the [overall] number of wolves, but it will change distribution and in a few areas the number of wolves."
Last January, Republican Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter incensed environmentalists when he told a group of hunters on the Idaho statehouse steps that he wanted to be the first to sign up to kill wolves once they were delisted.