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Idaho seeks to ease wolf protections in Rockies

Posted: Friday, September 02, 2005

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho is floating a new proposal that it hopes could speed the removal of federal protection for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains.

The animals have been protected since 1975 under the Endangered Species Act after being hunted to near-extinction.

In early August, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne gave officials with the U.S. Interior Department a plan calling for removing the wolves from protected status in parts of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

There are more than 800 of the predators in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, following their reintroduction to the region around Yellowstone National Park a decade ago. Environmentalists and government officials say the effort has succeeded, and now many people, including ranchers and hunters, want to see the animals delisted because they believe wolves should be more tightly controlled to limit depredations on livestock and game animals.

Recent federal court rulings — and the failure of Wyoming, Idaho’s neighbor to the east, to get federal approval for a plan to manage wolves within its borders — have hampered the delisting process. Idaho officials said Kempthorne’s proposal could break this bottleneck and move wolves closer to the day when they’ll be treated like other wildlife such as elk or black bears.

‘‘We wanted to get the ball rolling,’’ said James Caswell, a former national forest supervisor who heads Idaho’s species conservation office, of the plan presented with little fanfare Aug. 4.

It calls for wolves to be delisted east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, as well as in northern Nevada, Utah and Colorado. They would be delisted in much of Idaho and Montana, though they would be managed under existing rules south of Interstate 90 and east of Interstate 15 in both states, which includes the Montana and Idaho areas on the Wyoming state line.

Wyoming wolves would continue to be managed by federal officials.

Hugh Vickery, an Interior spokesman in Washington, D.C., said his agency isn’t ready to comment on Kempthorne’s proposal.

Some environmental groups were skeptical, in part because territory where Kempthorne calls for the wolves to be delisted includes states where the animal hasn’t even been reintroduced, such as Nevada, Utah and Colorado. That could hamper efforts to establish wolves there, they said.

Suzanne Stone, a Boise-based spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife, also said it makes little sense to separate management of Wyoming wolves from those in Idaho and Montana, because wolves travel freely across state boundaries.

‘‘As you whittle that down, you’re weakening the longterm strategy for recovery in the northern Rockies,’’ said Stone, whose group administers a $200,000 fund to reimburse livestock owners who’ve lost animals to wolves. ‘‘Wyoming and the region around Yellowstone National Park are essential to the longterm population recovery.’’

This year, the federal government has handed Idaho and Montana more authority to manage wolves, including easing rules allowing ranchers to shoot wolves harassing their livestock.

In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned over management of Montana’s gray wolves to the state, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will assume control of its wolves within days.

Even so, Idaho wants to take it a step further.

‘‘Getting state management is a nice first down, but delisting is crossing the goal line,’’ said Jeff Allen, a policy adviser in Idaho helping push Kempthorne’s proposal.

His argument: When wolves were reintroduced to Idaho in 1995, wildlife experts hoped to have 100 animals by this year. They now have four times that number.

Montana and Wyoming have enjoyed similar success.

It’s the manmade hurdles that have stalled delisting, said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana.

First, Wyoming’s management plan was rejected in 2004 because it allowed wolves to be shot in some areas with little restriction.

The state is currently suing to overturn the federal government’s rejection, but its plan must be in place before delisting can occur in Wyoming, Idaho or Montana, federal officials have said.

Then, on Feb. 2, a federal judge in Portland, Ore., ruled that the Bush administration violated the Endangered Species Act when it relaxed protections on many of the nation’s wolves in 2003.

U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones said the government acted improperly by combining areas where wolves were doing well, such as in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, with places where their numbers had not recovered.

Caswell believes Idaho’s plan identifies specific wolf habitat in the northern Rockies — without making the generalizations that Jones objected to.

He also said the proposal allows Wyoming wolves to remain under federal oversight until that state sorts out its own management plan.



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