Wolves in Northern Rockies may be delisted, made fair game for hunting

BILLINGS, Mont. - Wolves in the Northern Rockies will be removed from the endangered species list within the next year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday, a move that would expose the animals to trophy hunting.

The agency also will remove from the list a separate population of wolves in the Western Great Lakes region. Announcements on the two proposals are planned for Monday, agency spokeswoman Sharon Rose said.

Federal officials for months have been readying a proposal that calls for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to assume management of the estimated 1,200-plus gray wolves in their states. The plan would go into effect following a yearlong comment and review period, Rose said.

A similar proposal made last year to take 4,000 wolves off the endangered list in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin will be finalized, Rose said.

If the Northern Rockies' proposal skirts expected legal challenges and becomes law, it would open wolves in the region to trophy hunting for the first time since an intensive wolf restoration effort began in the late 1980s. The Great Lakes wolves would be protected from public hunting for at least five years.

Fight promised

While environmentalists promise to fight the agency's proposal for the Rockies, hunting groups say it will not come quickly enough. But all sides agree the federal action caps a sharp turnaround for the long-beleaguered wolf.

By the 1930s, following a prolonged, government-sponsored eradication effort, gray wolves were virtually eliminated across the West. The animal was declared endangered in 1974, shortly after passage of the Endangered Species Act.

Federal and state biologists previously have said that each of the Rocky Mountain states will be required to maintain a minimum of 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, or the animal would again come under federal protection. A buffer of at least five additional breeding pairs per state would be required to ensure the canine does not once again become endangered.

Despite concerns from wildlife advocates that the three states will invite widespread slaughter of the notorious canine, federal and state wildlife managers insist the plan is sustainable.

"We have no concern about the long-term future of wolves," said Ed Bangs, coordinator of the Northern Rockies wolf recovery program. "The numbers will remain safely above that (10 breeding pairs per state), and the states have guaranteed that."

But Jamie Rappaport Clark with Defenders of Wildlife said that with the exception of Montana, the state plans come up short.

"We are absolutely certain removing Northern Rocky Mountain wolves from the endangered species list at this time will only jeopardize their continued recovery," said Clark, former Fish and Wildlife Service director during the Clinton administration.

Others claim the federal government is not moving fast enough. Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, based in Montana, is seeking state assistance in a planned lawsuit to make the delisting effective immediately.

"We don't believe a word that comes out of the Fish and Wildlife Service," said the organization's chairman, Robert Fanning Jr.

Fish and Wildlife officials still have not resolved a dispute with Wyoming over its proposed management plan. The federal agency has rejected the state's proposal, and Wyoming has sued the federal government over the rejection.

Wyoming and the Fish and Wildlife Service are negotiating for a compromise. Wyoming wants more latitude to kill wolves when necessary to protect livestock and wildlife.

If the dispute with Wyoming is not resolved before the Fish and Wildlife Service delisting proposal is final, federal officials have said they may exclude Wyoming from the delisting program.

The Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to reclassify wolves in northern Montana under the less-restrictive threatened status in 2003. That was later overturned in federal courts.