Rocky Mountain Gray Wolves Could Lose Endangered Species Protection

WASHINGTON, DC, February 6, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intends to remove gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. The Service says these wolves have exceeded biological recovery goals and no longer require protection under the Endangered Species Act.

An advanced notice of proposed rulemaking issued Thursday gives the public time to review and comment on the Service's proposed future rulemaking that would establish a gray wolf Distinct Population Segment (DPS), encompassing the geographic boundary of all of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small part of northcentral Utah.

If this rule were implemented, wolves outside the boundaries of the DPS in other parts of the country would continue to be listed as endangered, except for the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, which is listed as an experimental, non-essential population.

The Service anticipates publishing a proposal to establish and delist a Great Lakes DPS of gray wolves, which has also exceeded its recovery goals, in the near future.

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Gray wolf populations in Montnat, Idah, and Wyoming have increased to about 850 animals. (Photo by Adam Messer courtesy Montana FWP)
The Service reclassified gray wolf populations in 2003 from endangered to threatened for much of the species' current range in the United States and proposed to delist the eastern population of wolves in 2004.

Both the reclassification and the proposed delisting were overturned by federal courts last year in a case brought by conservation groups. The Service continues to believe reclassification is both biologically and legally sound and is proceeding on that basis.

The Service says its advanced notice of proposed rulemaking for anticipated delisting "seeks to comply with the courts' rulings, while recognizing, as the courts did, that the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes wolf populations have reached the recovery goals necessary for delisting."

In making the announcement, Service Director Dale Hall emphasized that any future rulemaking on a delisting decision for Rocky Mountain wolves depends on the state of Wyoming implementing a state law and wolf management plan approved by the Service, as required under the Endangered Species Act.

"Gray wolves in the Northern Rockies have exceeded their recovery goals and are biologically ready to be delisted," Hall said. "However, the potential delisting cannot be finalized until Wyoming's wolf management plan has been approved. We are hopeful that Wyoming will be able to develop a state law and management plan which meets the Service's criteria for approval."

The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains is 30 breeding pairs and at least 300 wolves for three consecutive years, a goal that was attained in 2002.

The most recent official population counts in 2004 found that Montana had 15 breeding pairs and approximately 153 wolves; Wyoming had 24 breeding pairs and approximately 260 wolves; and Idaho had 27 breeding pairs and 422 wolves.

Official population estimates for 2005 are not yet available but are expected to be slightly higher than last year.

Wolves dispersed naturally from Canada into northwestern Montana in the early 1980s. In 1995 and 1996, the Service reintroduced wolves from southwestern Canada to remote public lands in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.

The Service has worked with state and local governments, Indian tribes, other federal agencies, conservation organizations and private landowners to manage wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and reduce or eliminate threats to their populations. The wolf population has flourished there, exceeding recovery goals each year since 2002, the Service said.

If the northern Rocky Mountain DPS is delisted in future rules, the individual states and tribes will resume sole management of wolves within their respective boundaries.

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The gray wolf, also known as the eastern timber wolf, once roamed from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico. (Photo courtesy Montana FWP)
Montana and Idaho have adopted state laws and wolf management plans, approved by the Service, to conserve their share of a recovered northern Rocky Mountain wolf population into the foreseeable future. Wyoming's law and its wolf management plan have not been approved by the Service.

Wyoming's law defines wolves as a "predatory animal," which means that wolves can be killed at any time, by anyone, without limit, and by any means except poisoning. Concerns regarding Wyoming state law and its plan must be resolved before the northern Rocky Mountain DPS proposed delisting regulation can progress.

The Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have now transferred much of the federal management responsibilities to the states of Montana and Idaho. The two states now implement control actions for problem wolves, monitor wolf packs, coordinate research, conduct public information programs and take wolves for scientific and other purposes in accordance with federal regulations.

Important elements of the Idaho and Montana management frameworks are adequate regulatory mechanisms to manage the human take of wolves, consistent definitions of a "pack," and agreement to manage for 15 packs in each state.

Comments from the public on the Service's intent to propose to establish a distinct population segment and to delist the wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains should be mailed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Western Gray Wolf Recovery Coordinator, 585 Shepard Way, Helena, Montana 59601. Comments are required to be submitted by close of business 60 days after the Federal Register publication date.

Speaking for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups that won the court case over the Service's previous delisting plans, Suzanne Stone said, "We know that eventually wolves are going to be delisted in the northern Rockies. Our concern is that the plan guarantees their viability and longterm survival."

"We are pleased that this is a preproposal, which gives us time to digest the information, and we are still evaluating the plan," said Stone, Defenders' Northern Rockies representative.

Stone says the new boundary would enhance the size of wolf habitat, and says Defenders is looking at population standards, how many wolves the can habitat support and its potential effects on adjacent areas in other states such as California.

The effect of handing management over to the states depends on how state plans are constructed, Stone said. "Montana has a very good plan that allows wolf populations to grow without an upper limit. Idaho's plan is more vague."

Stone says Defenders is concerned that Idaho would be more agressive in killing wolves in the state, and the Wyoming plan has not even been accepted.

"Defenders of Wildlife supports enlisting the help of the states with wolf management where appropriate, but the federal government is poised to hand virtually all responsibility to a state that has essentially vowed to destroy the wolf. It is a recipe for disaster," said Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen in January when Idaho assumed management of its wolf population.

"Idaho's wolf management plan to shoot first and ask questions later could jeopardize the future of the wolf in the region. We believe this action is blatantly illegal and are exploring options for stopping it in court," Schlickeisen said.

The gray wolf, also known as the eastern timber wolf, once roamed from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico.

Outside of Alaska, only a few hundred remained when the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973 and the species was listed as endangered.

Conservation efforts have helped build numbers to some 4,000, but these populations are spread across less than five percent of the gray wolf's historic range.

In April 2003 the Bush administration divided the species into three Distinct Population Segments within the lower 48 states - a move critics say violates the Endangered Species Act.

Based on the creation of these population groups, the administration downgraded the status of the gray wolf in much of the eastern and western United States from "endangered" to "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. Wolves in the Southwestern DPS remain endangered.