Wyoming firm on wolf plan
BY: Joy Ufford
No one is arguing Wyoming’s gray wolf population hasn’t recovered – yet the state is embroiled in court actions and its wolves are protected.
Conservationists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) say the state’s current management plan isn’t good enough to protect its wolves – and Wyoming is defending that challenge in Cheyenne’s U.S. District Court.
At the heart is Wyoming officials’ belief that the state’s plan is indeed good enough, that Wyoming Game & Fish should oversee a “trophy-game area” with the “predator area” where wolves are treated like coyotes.
One delisting lawsuit, filed against FWS by Earthjustice on behalf of a conservation coalition, is based in part over what it calls FWS’ “piecemeal” delisting approach when it delisted wolves in April in Montana and Idaho but left out Wyoming. This brought forth the state’s suit against FWS.
With ongoing court battles over delisting, current management of Wyoming’s again-protected gray wolves falls to FWS, whose officials had accepted the state’s plan but after being sued, backed away.
In the meantime, wolves in effect have almost no one controlling what they do and where they do it, some say.
Last week, FWS Wyoming wolf program director Mike Jimenez stated Wyoming residents could shoot wolves physically attacking their livestock – but not if their dogs are attacked on public land.
This is part of the FWS’ 10J rule, in effect while Wyoming’s wolves are listed.
Thus, Bondurant lion-guide Scott Leeper on Nov. 13 lost three hounds to two groups of more than 20 wolves in the Upper Gros Ventre and could not protect them.
So where does this tug-of-war stand?
Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said the state has filed its opening brief in its suit against FWS and the Department of the Interior. Fellow petitioners are the Wyoming Wolf Coalition and the Park County Board of County Commissioners.
FWS’ response brief is due to the court on Dec. 14 and replies from Wyoming, Park County and the Wyoming Wolf Coalition are due Jan. 15. The court will hear oral arguments on Jan. 29 with three hours set aside, according to Jay Jerde, deputy attorney general.
“This case rises from the refusal of the (FWS) to admit that it violated the Endangered Species Act in 2004 and again in 2006, when it demanded the State of Wyoming adopt a statewide trophy-game classification for wolves in the state’s wolf management scheme,” the state’s brief says.
“In both instances (FWS) allowed political and public relations considerations and speculative concerns about post-delisting lawsuits to influence its decision, even though the (FWS’) own biologists and an independent panel of peer review biologists believed that classifying wolves as predators throughout most of Wyoming would not threaten the viability of the gray wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountain region, as long as the State classified wolves as trophy game in northwestern Wyoming.”
In 2008, Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula’s U.S. District Court issued a preliminary injunction over delisting and “chastised (FWS) for not explaining why it accepted Wyoming’s dual-classification management plan it had rejected in 2004 and 2006.
“This rebuke from the court left (FWS) with only one option if it wanted to save the delisting rule – (FWS) had to admit that it was wrong to demand the statewide trophy game classification in 2004 and 2006,” the brief says. “The ESA requires (FWS) to base its delisting decisions solely on biological information.”
It says FWS has no biological reason to demand Wyoming adopt a statewide trophy-game classification for its management plan and by doing so “has chosen pride over its legal obligation to follow the unambiguous requirements in the ESA …”
Thus, the state seeks this judicial review of FWS’ rejection of Wyoming’s plan, according to the brief.
Change of heart
The state’s brief includes early communications from FWS officials, biologists and others stating Wyoming’s dual-classification proposal would not affect wolf recovery.
FWS wolf recovery program director Ed Bangs is quoted as saying in 2004: “… While we do not believe that dual status in and of itself will preclude Wyoming from maintaining its share of a recovered wolf population, the area where wolves are managed as ‘trophy game’ has to be large enough to completely encompass a recovered wolf population.”
As a result, the state expanded its trophy-game area, which was “acceptable” to FWS as long as it was permanent in northwestern Wyoming, the brief says.
In 2008, FWS concluded “the trophy-game area ‘is clearly large enough to support 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves ‘ and that any wolves killed in the predatory animal area ‘are not necessary to sustain a recovered wolf population … because they would be so few, scattered and temporary,’” the brief states.
Wyoming – outside Yellowstone – now has at least 180 to 200 wolves and 29 to 30 packs, according to Jimenez. A more accurate count is expected after the annual FWS winter count, he said.
Change of plan?
The state of Wyoming has no intention of backing down on what it considers a good management plan, and that was shown in the 2008 Legislative Session where lawmakers voted to abandon all pending bills and support the existing plan.
“We believe that the existing management plan provides adequate protection to the reintroduced wolf population, so there is no current plan to ‘redo’ it,” Salzburg said last week.
Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman Eric Keszler said he didn’t know of “any pending legislation.”
Upper Gros Ventre outfitter and rancher Brian Taylor said last week generations of his family’s livelihood are seriously threatened there by the lack of control or management in what he called a “wolf stronghold.”
“Everybody has conceded the fact wolves are here to stay,” he said. “Most people that are reasonable will agree with that.”
When wildlife lovers and outdoor enthusiasts stop seeing moose and elk in the wild is when the realization will hit that wolves have run too rampant, he added.
Taylor hopes to organize a field trip to the Taylors’ hunting camp near the head of the Gros Ventre – not so far for wolves from the Upper Green and Hoback river basins – so officials, politicians and outdoors writers can take stock of just how many wolves are there and how they affect wildlife and livestock.
Jimenez said the “Buffalo Pack” had an estimated six wolves last year and now estimates there are 17 to 20 in the pack.
“It’ll open some eyes,” Taylor said. “It’s amazing what wolves can do in a 24-hour period with those elk. Some of them they run to death. I know what goes on up the Gros Ventre.”
The Gros Ventre drainage is “virtually unchanged in my lifetime,” Taylor added, making it a wilder, more natural habitat for wolves and other wildlife.
He spent 80 days in “the field” last summer and fall moving cows and running pack trips and did not see a moose, he said. This hunting season around their camp, bought from the Falers in 1952, Taylor said, not a single spike elk was spotted by himself, his father or the guide.
“Everybody has got to be willing to accept what the truth is and manage wolves from there,” Taylor said. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to have nothing.”
The attorney general’s brief calls for scientific evidence and reasoning for FWS leaving Wyoming out of the recent Northern Rockies’ wolf delisting.
“(FWS) has no legitimate biological reason for requiring the state to adopt a statewide trophy game classification for wolves,” it reads, adding the “best scientific data available” shows the trophy-game area is adequate for Wyoming to maintain its share of wolves after delisting and that FWS’ reasons for wanting the statewide trophy-game plan “have no basis in fact or law.”
Salzburg was firm last week in reiterating Wyoming officials want this suit settled based on law and scientific data – not public opinion or politics.
“As we stated, the Endangered Species Act requires that listing and delisting decisions be based solely on science – no politics, no public relations,” Salzburg said.
Bangs, however, said it isn’t just science affecting wolf recovery and management.
“Wolf recovery and management is a blend of science, politics and public relations,” he stated. “Science is a constantly evolving thing. If it was just about pure science, the question of whether you should even have wolves is not a purely scientific question.”
“That’s interesting,” commented Salzburg, “but I won’t engage in a debate about pending litigation.”
FWS is preparing its response brief and the agency is trying to manage wolves with recovery in mind while watching for impacts, Bangs said.
“A big part of recovery is trying to reduce damage, for sure,” Bangs said.
If wolves endanger an isolated wildlife group, the wolves would be removed, he said. Bangs said he’s heard a lot of hunters and guides are not seeing the game they did before wolves flourished.
“Whether that’s wolves or not, I don’t know. … Certainly some areas are impacted. … Sometimes wolves can impact game populations a lot, sometimes a little, sometimes not at all.”
Why didn’t FWS stand behind its previous support of Wyoming’s management plan?
“We sort of did that and the judge pointed out a lot of things,” Bangs said. “… We came to the conclusion, you know, it probably wasn’t good enough.”
“Wyoming is in a class by itself,” he added. “There’s nothing wrong with going to court on that stuff.”