‘Predator’ comments nip at wolf plan
By TOM MORTON Star-Tribune capital bureau
CHEYENNE — The dual listing of the gray wolf as a predator and a trophy game animal has raised questions about Wyoming’s proposed management plan for the endangered species.
Earlier this week, U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton raised an 11th-hour concern to Gov. Dave Freudenthal over language in the wolf management proposal in the Legislature, according to the governor’s legal counsel.
Thursday, an Interior Department spokesman said the bill outlining the plan did not satisfy all concerns of the department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The secretary expressed her concern with the use of the word ‘predator’ in our proposed legislation,” Mike O’Donnell said Thursday.
“The governor shared with the secretary his frustrations: No. 1, that something as key to these wolf bills as that type of language was being raised at the very last minute,” O’Donnell said. “And No. 2, that the wolf is not called a ‘predator’ in this bill; the phrase is ‘predatory animal.’”
A “predatory animal” is an animal that has the potential to create economic hazards, Rep. Mike Baker, R-Thermopolis, said. A predator, on the other hand, describes an animal behavior, which does not necessarily resulted in economic damage.
Freudenthal was out of the state and not available for comment.
Hugh Vickery, spokesman for the Department of the Interior, declined to comment on the conversation between Norton and Freudenthal.
But the Interior’s position on delisting the wolf is clear, he said in an interview from Washington, D.C. “The Fish and Wildlife Service will not delist the wolf until the state has a management plan in place that ensures long-term conservation of the species as required by the Endangered Species Act.”
The state’s efforts came closer Thursday when the Senate overwhelmingly passed House Bill 229 on third reading. The bill now goes to Freudenthal for signing.
HB 229 , sponsored by Baker, would set up a “dual classification” management program in which the Wyoming Game and Fish Department would be responsible for maintaining seven packs.
Wolves would remain under federal protection in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. In certain wilderness areas next to the parks, wolves would be classified as trophy game.
Outside those areas, if the number of packs exceed seven, people could kill wolves as predators at any time for any reason.
Early Thursday, before emotions calmed, O’Donnell and others used the “predator” comment for an angry incentive to urge the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve $250,000 for HB 300 to establish a program to analyze and monitor federal natural resource issues, and take legal action if necessary.
HB 229 sponsor Baker later expressed some queasiness about the fate of the bill he and others worked so hard to create.
“Why on the third day in the last hours are they objecting?” Baker asked. “Those things caused little bells to go off in my mind.”
Baker recognized that Norton may have a public relations problem as the wolf nears delisting, he said.
While ranchers in western Wyoming regard the wolf as a predator that attacks their animals and livestock, many other U.S. residents know it only as a wild big dog that frolics in the fields in Yellowstone.
“How are we going to sell this to the housewife in Connecticut?” Baker said.
But that public relations problem should have been dealt with a long time ago, he said, because back in 1988 — seven years before wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone — biologists knew that people would need to kill 30 percent of them a year to keep the population stable.
Baker also believes that the “predator” comment refers to lingering doubts about dual classification, he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would like all wolves outside the parks to be listed in just one classification of trophy game, but that won’t happen now, Baker said.
Baker is confident that the Denver regional office, which has expressed its support for HB 229 , will make the final decision about delisting the wolf.
He and O’Donnell referred to recent letters from Fish and Wildlife Service officials to Freudenthal and U.S. Rep. Barbara Cubin that stated the Legislature’s work “should satisfy the requirement” of maintaining and monitoring packs.
But Vickery of the Department of the Interior appeared to contradict that.
“We don’t think it quite gets us there, but we think we can work with the state to get us there,” Vickery said.
The “unregulated taking” of a wolf as a predator, compared to that of killing it as trophy game, causes problems for monitoring the size of packs and the number of wolves, Vickery said.
Norton’s and Vickery’s comments about wolves as predatory animals, and doubts about the future of a wolf management plan in Wyoming, should not come as a surprise, said Jason Marsden of the Wyoming Conservation Voters.
“I’m not surprised that the ‘predator’ term got them in trouble,” Marsden said. “They passed a bill that has language that concerns the federal government.”
The problem with “predator” could have been avoided if those working on wolf legislation had listened to the biologists who recommended trophy game status statewide, he said. “It’s always been a gamble that the feds would accept dual status, and Secretary Norton’s remarks really underscore the risk the Legislature is taking with this approach.”
On the other hand, Tom Thorne, interim director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, didn’t think the “predatory animal” language would affect delisting.
“It should not make a difference in what we call (the wolf) in any given area,” Thorne said. “What makes a difference is how we manage it.”