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Wyoming's plan to manage Yellowstone wolves still falls short of Interior requirements

The state of Wyoming continues to be the odd man out, regarding how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to see western states manage Yellowstone wolves within their borders.

June, 2011

The state of Wyoming continues to be the odd man out, regarding how the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wants to see western states manage grey wolves within their borders. The Interior Department has required Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to submit plans for managing wolves before it will remove them from Endangered Species Act protection. It accepted the plans submitted by Montana and Idaho, but rejected Wyoming’s plan for classifying wolves as trophy animals in and near Yellowstone National Park, but as predators everywhere else in the state.

Yellowstone Wolf Reintroduction Background

In 2003, the Wyoming Legislature passed a law that requires the dual classification.

In January 2004, the Department of Interior rejected the Wyoming plan, saying the dual classification would not help maintain a viable wolf population.

In April 2004, Wyoming sued Interior, emphasizing that a peer review of the state plan indicated that the plan could maintain a sustainable wolf population.

Eleven months later, in mid-March, Wyoming lost its lawsuit.

Wyoming’s Wolf Reintroduction Lawsuit Rejected

A federal judge in Cheyenne dismissed Wyoming’s lawsuit against the federal government. U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson said he disagreed with the state’s claim that the federal government violated the Endangered Species Act in rejecting the plan. He said the act didn’t come into play because rejection of the Wyoming plan did not constitute final action by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Johnson dismissed the lawsuit filed by the state and joined by the “Wolf Coalition,” a group of agricultural, business, sportsmen, county government and other organizations.

According to conservation groups, only four packs operate entirely within Yellowstone National Park, while all the rest follow elk herds out of the park and onto private or non-wilderness lands. That exposes the majority of Wyoming wolf packs to predator status, meaning they can be baited, poisoned or shot by anyone at any time.

“The historical record is pretty clear,” said Abigale Dillen, the Earth Justice attorney who represented the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council on the case.

“Predator status translates into eradication very quickly.”

Dillen said Judge Johnson’s ruling and management suggestions from the Interior did not say that Wyoming couldn’t have dual classification of wolves.

“If you don’t want wolves around Cheyenne, you don’t have to have them,” Dillen said.

Drawing the Boundary Line for Yellowstone Wolves

Essentially, said Dillen, the boundary line between trophy and predator status is drawn too closely to the borders of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and adjacent wilderness areas. A viable and sustainable wolf population based in Yellowstone, said Dillen, needs more habitat in which it is actively managed as a trophy animal-not as a predator. Beyond that area, said Dillen, predator status is more appropriate.

Where to draw the line has yet to be worked out.

Judge Johnson dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning that the state and the Wolf Coalition could bring similar legal action again.

Wyoming’s Appeal

Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank has decided to appeal Johnson’s order and is also looking at petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Either path could take between one and two years for resolution, agree legal experts.

Much of Crank’s concerns centered on a Jan. 13, 2004 letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The letter expressed that the state’s unregulated plan regarding predator status, does not provide sufficient controls to maintain the populations. The federal agency also questioned Wyoming’s commitment to managing at least 15 packs and its definition of a pack.

The Interior has offered to return management of the gray wolf to the states once they all have plans in place that will assure a sustainable population of the species.

Montana and Idaho have submitted plans that were acceptable to Interior. Those states now have more state control of wolves, including the recent ability of ranchers to legally shoot wolves that harass livestock or wildlife. Wyoming’s wolves remain under management control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the wolf population has recovered and the best place for wolf management is with the states’ game and fish departments.

“The clearest path (for Wyoming) is to look at getting the state plan that the (Fish and Wildlife Service) can approve,” Bangs said. “We want to continue to work with Wyoming Game and Fish and the state of Wyoming to get through this issue.”