Plan Eases Federal Protection for Wolves in Idaho and Montana
WASHINGTON, DC, March 4, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration announced a proposal Wednesday to give Idaho and Montana greater authority to manage gray wolf populations in their states. The plan allows state officials in both states to kill wolves that may be threatening elk and deer populations and gives ranchers and pet owners greater freedom to kill wolves that threaten their animals.
The announcement is part of the Bush administration's plan to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and give state governments the responsibility for managing and safeguarding the species.
In January the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved management plans crafted by Idaho and Montana to manage their gray wolf populations once the federal protection of the ESA is removed.
The overall plan for delisting the species in the Western United States was delayed, however, because the agency found Wyoming's plan inadequate.
The federal agency objected to the Wyoming's desire to designate wolves in some areas as predators - a designation that allows the animals to be killed at any time and anywhere.
But that should not prohibit Idaho and Montana from being granted greater flexibility and responsibility for managing the species, according to Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton.
Wolf populations in the northern Rocky Mountains "far exceed" their recovery goals under the ESA, Norton said, and Idaho and Montana have written responsible management plans.
"We believe that it is appropriate for us to pursue as much local management for this recovered wolf population as we can," Norton said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates 761 gray wolves live in the area of the Northern Rockies that includes Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
The proposed regulations give state officials the right to kill wolves determined to be causing unacceptable impacts to wildlife populations, such as herds of deer and elk, if those populations are not meeting state management goals and are unlikely to rebound because of predation by wolves.
Private citizens in Idaho and Montana would be allowed to kill wolves on private lands without a permit if the predators are attacking livestock, livestock herding operations, and other animals including pets.
A permit would be required for the killing of wolves on public lands.
The proposal would not allow public hunting of wolves, which is prohibited for species protected by the ESA - the gray wolf is listed as "threatened" under the law.
According to the agency, wolves have killed 278 cattle, 792 sheep, 62 dogs, and 20 other animals in the Northern Rockies since 1995.
The proposed changes would only have effect in the experimental population areas established Montana and Idaho when wolves were reintroduced in 1995.
Norton praised the leadership of state officials in Idaho and Montana for developing "an appropriate balance in their wolf management plans between the necessary protections required for the wolf and the management tools critical to protect children, property, pets and livestock."
The review of each state's management plans included peer review by 11 national wolf experts and state responses to those peer review comments, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The proposal does not affect Wyoming nor does it apply to wolf populations in the Great Lakes region or in the southwestern United States.
Conservationists fear the Bush administration is bowing to anti-wolf interests and contend that the policies of the Bush government will undermine one of the nation's greatest conservation success stories.
The gray wolf once roamed from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico, but only a few hundred remained in the Great Lakes region when the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.
It was one of the first species listed as endangered under the law, conservation efforts have helped build the numbers to some 4,000 spread across less than five percent of the gray wolf's historic range.
In April 2003 the Bush administration downgraded the status of the gray wolf throughout much of the lower 48 states from endangered to threatened under the ESA and announced its intent to move forward with delisting the species entirely.
Prior to the delisting announcement, all gray wolves in the lower 48, except for those in Minnesota, had been listed as "endangered" under the ESA. The Minnesota population continues to be listed as threatened.
Critics say the decision is premature and fear the species will suffer if protection efforts are left in the hands of state governments.
Conservation groups have sued to block the plan in federal courts in Oregon and Vermont.
The proposed regulations will be published in the near future in the Federal Register and the public will have an opportunity to comment on them for 60 days following publication.
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