The rule would allow the states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana to kill wolves while they are still protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The rule applies to wolves in central Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone area - descendents of the roughly 60 wolves that were reintroduced to those regions in 1995 and 1996.
The Bush administration says the rule change is necessary because the previous standard required states to show that wolves are the primary cause of a decline in wild ungulate numbers. That threshold has proven impossible to meet because nearly all elk herds in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are above population objectives, and wolves have never been determined to have been the primary cause of a population decline.
"The federal government is overlooking the benefits wolves are bringing to the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who is representing the plaintiff groups.
"The University of Montana found that visitors coming to Yellowstone National Park to see wolves brought $35 million annually to the region's economy, which yields more than $70 million in added benefit to communities in the Northern Rockies," Honnold argued. "Elk populations are now healthier, streams run cold and clear again, and other wildlife populations are back in balance."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued two rules concerning gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains. One would remove the wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act, a process called delisting. The second rule would allow states in the Northern Rockies to kill wolves whenever wolves had impacts on wild ungulate populations.
The second rule remains in effect only until the administration removes wolves from the list of endangered species, an action that is expected to come next month.
Still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted the rule in response to the state of Wyoming, which insisted that states have the right to kill wolves affecting elk herds in any way even if a federal court overturns wolf delisting in the Northern Rockies.
"Deer and elk populations are thriving in this region. There's absolutely no reason to begin slaughtering wolves, other than to please a handful of special interests," said Sierra Club representative Melanie Stein.
Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said "the rule harkens back to a period in which wolves' natural role of maintaining the balance of nature is seen as a problem."
Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter has said that Idaho has a population of over 1,200 wolves, when the federal government has said repeatedly over the past decade that 300 wolves in the region would be a recovered, viable population.
"There is no reason to delay delisting," the governor said in March 2007. "The government should declare victory and move on."
A gray wolf surveys an Idaho landscape. (Photo courtesy Jay Smith University of Idaho)
"Idahoans are proud stewards of the land and species of our state. Idaho is going to manage wolves as we do black bears and mountain lions," said the governor. "With estimated black bear and cougar populations of 20,000 and 3,000 respectively, Idaho has a proven record of responsible large carnivore management. We will continue this great record with wolves."
"The key is flexibility to control problem wolves," he said. "In areas where wolves are not destroying livestock or having a dramatic impact on our ungulate herds, wolves will be managed in concert with all species."
"In areas where we’ve documented consistent patterns of chronic livestock depredation, like the Copper Basin, and where wolves are having an unacceptable impact on elk herds, the state will use sportsmen and other tools to manage wolves and protect private property," said Governor Otter.
Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal has said, "The ultimate question, though, is whether or not Wyoming will be given the flexibility to manage wolves that are causing an unacceptable impact on our elk and moose populations."
Conservationists are not reassured by these statements.
"In this rule, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is either downplaying the threats to wolves, or it has forgotten all the trigger-happy statements made by Wyoming and Idaho officials who want to kill as many wolves as possible, as soon as possible," says Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"This rule is nothing less than a declaration of war on wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana," said John Grandy, Ph.D., senior vice president of The Humane Society of the United States. "After decades of progress, the service is abandoning all that we have achieved for wolf conservation and returning to the short-sighted persecution and extermination policies of the past."
Grey wolves were virtually eliminated from the Western United States by the 1930s. Fear of wolves by early American settlers combined with livestock losses began a national campaign for mass extermination.
The U.S. Department of the Interior's Predatory Animal and Rodent Control Service spent millions of dollars hiring and supplying trappers. Subsidized bounty programs that started in the late 1800s and to 1965, offered $20 to $50 per wolf.
Public attitudes changed and conservationists altered the view of the federal government, and wolves received legal protection with the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Canadian wolves moved south to Montana in the early 1980s, and in 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. The Fish and Wildlife Service began recovery efforts in Idaho with the release of 15 wolves in 1995, and 20 more in 1996.
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