SEATTLE -- Wolves are finally poised to be taken off the Endangered Species list in the Northern Rockies, with the federal government recently approving Wyoming’s plan for managing its own wolves.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday that the wolf population in Wyoming is officially “recovered,” the same pronouncement that's been made about wolf populations in Idaho and Montana. That decision -- when it takes effect at the end of September -- marks the end of a wolf-recovery process that began in the region nearly 17 years ago.
But the fate of the once nearly extinct predator is far from settled. Wolf advocates fear that the animals could be beaten back out of the Northern Rockies by state laws that have gradually expanded the hunting and trapping of wolves nearly everywhere except in national parks.
New lawsuits are expected to be filed soon in Montana, where conservationists argue that newly authorized wolf traps could catch threatened Canada lynx. Legal action is also expected in Wyoming, where critics argue that the state’s plan for managing wolves could leave them vulnerable to wholesale killing through most of the state.
Attorneys for Earthjustice, which expects to challenge the Wyoming plan, said ranchers in that state have talked about the possibility of using tethered dogs as live bait to lure problem wolves toward the waiting guns of ranch owners.
“Wyoming has a law that says you can kill wolves … at any time of year in circumstances where they’re threatening livestock or pets,” Tim Preso, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Montana, told the Los Angeles Times. “The unseemly spectacle we’ve seen at some public meetings is folks who have anti-wolf sentiments have been confirming with state Fish and Game personnel that it would be legal to go adopt a dog from the pound, stake it out in wolf territory and shoot wolves as they come to attack the dog.”
The Idaho Statesman reported on Idaho state Sen. Jeff Siddoway, who proposed a measure that would have allowed live baiting of wolves in that state.
As an example, Siddoway told a legislative committee that his wife’s dog, Sophie, could be placed on a 20- to 30-foot leash while he hid nearby with a gun and then sounded an electronic wolf howl. “You try to get Sophie to chime in with the wolves,” the Republican legislator said, according to the Statesman. “If they come down out, just start shooting.”
Siddoway's Idaho sheep company includes summer pastures in Wyoming.
Wyoming Game & Fish Department spokesman Eric Keszler said he was uncertain whether live baiting would be permitted under state regulations.
At issue in the upcoming legal challenge will be a provision in Wyoming’s plan that manages wolves as ordinary trophy hunting targets in the northwest corner of the state near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, with full hunting regulations and quotas. That provision designates wolves as predators in the remaining 83% of the state, meaning they can be killed at any time in any numbers.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say the vast majority of the state’s wolves are in the more-protected northwest corner. Further, they say, the plan includes a flexible zone that extends the normal hunting regulations about 50 miles south of the town of Jackson between October and February. That zone is intended to protect wolf numbers at a time when young wolves normally disperse to new territory to form or join new packs.
“One of the great concerns we have is that what we do know is that wolves disperse at all times of the year, and when they do, it usually takes them about five months to move from one of these population centers to another. So just on those terms, it doesn’t seem very well-calculated to solve the problem,” Preso said.
Wolf advocates also are concerned about the exemption allowing wolves in any zone to be killed when threatening people or livestock. The provision for a “predator” zone with few or no controls on wolf killing could lead Idaho and Montana, which presently have no such free zones, to try for similar exemptions, the advocates say.
“Perhaps we could not expect more from Wyoming, but the Fish and Wildlife Service must have higher standards for wolf recovery,” Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement signaling that his group, too, intends to pursue new litigation.
Keszler, the Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman, said the new regulations provided trophy hunting protections for nearly all wolves currently in the state, adding that few or none are outside the northwest quadrant.