Since the reintroduction of a small number of wolves imported from Canada…
Reporting from Seattle — Following Congress' unprecedented move to excise wolves from endangered species protections in Idaho and Montana, the U.S. Interior Department on Wednesday declared wolves fully recovered in most of the Northern Rockies, opening the door for hunts in the fall.
The announcement means that wolves will no longer be protected under federal law in much of the region and will be managed like other wildlife species by state game managers. They will remain classified as an endangered species in Wyoming pending additional discussions with the state, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
The department also said it was proposing to soon remove similar endangered species protections for western Great Lakes region wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
"Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act," Salazar said. "From a biological perspective, they have now recovered."
Since the reintroduction of a small number of wolves imported from Canada into the area around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in 1995, wolves have expanded as far as Oregon and Washington and reportedly number at least 1,700.
Federal wildlife managers previously declared them recovered in Idaho and Montana in 2009 and limited hunting seasons opened that year in both states. But a federal judge intervened and put them back under federal protection, concluding they couldn't be delisted in Montana and Idaho while they remained officially endangered in Wyoming.
Wyoming officials have been negotiating to get wolf protections lifted there, too. But discussions have been delayed because of federal objections to the state's plan to treat wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in all but the northwestern part of the state.
In Montana, state wildlife officials are submitting a tentative proposal to allow the hunting of 220 of the state's estimated 566 wolves — three times the number killed in the 2009 hunt, wildlife department spokesman Ron Aasheim said.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said the state would begin killing wolves that threatened elk in the Lolo region and would also set a sport hunting season for wolves in the fall.
Conservationists have battled in the courts for years to ensure that wolves attain greater numbers across better-connected ranges before being delisted. The budget bill passed by Congress last month set those efforts back, requiring that the animals be delisted in the Northern Rockies and specifying that the issue would not be subject to further judicial review.
Jenny Harbine, attorney for Earthjustice, which had led the litigation, said the concerns expressed by conservationists and the courts remained.
"With the present wolf population close to 2,000, we are within spitting distance of true biological recovery, but the states have to commit to maintaining that robust population before it's appropriate to lift protections that have been provided by the Endangered Species Act," Harbine said.