By BEN NEARY, Associated Press
Cheyenne, Wyo. • Congressional action appears to offer Wyoming its best chance at regaining state management of wolves, Gov. Matt Mead said Thursday.
Acting in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson last month stripped Wyoming of wolf management authority and returned wolves to federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. In Utah, wolves remain protected under the act. A state management plan, which allows for two breeding pairs in the state, won’t be used until wolves are delisted in the region.
Jackson agreed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that wolves in the Northern Rockies have recovered and she accepted the agency’s finding that wolves aren’t endangered or threatened within a significant portion of their range.
However, Jackson ruled the Wyoming plan that took effect in 2012 failed to contain legal guarantees that the state would maintain a buffer wolf population above the required minimum of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
A survey released by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department early this year said there were at least 306 wolves in at least 43 packs – including more than 23 breeding pairs – in the state at the end of 2013.
Wyoming held wolf hunts in a trophy management zone bordering Yellowstone in 2012 and 2013. Jackson’s order ending state management came on the eve of this year’s scheduled hunt, stopping it.
Jackson ruled she was not satisfied by a last-minute effort by Mead’s administration to try to make the buffer population requirement legally binding as an administrative rule until the state Legislature could take action early next year to codify it in law.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Mead said his administration is still considering whether to appeal Jackson’s order. The deadline for filing an appeal is late November.
Mead said Wyoming’s best chance at regaining wolf management authority appears to be seeking congressional action specifying its wolf plan wouldn’t be challenged legally.
Congress in 2011 took unprecedented action to remove federal protections from wolves in Idaho and Montana while specifying there could be no legal challenge to the decision to turn them over to state management.
Mead said all three members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation are willing to push for similar federal action on Wyoming wolves.
“With the election next week, we’ll know better what the congressional makeup’s going to be. Hopefully have a better feel of what the next Congress is going to look like,” Mead said.
Mead said he expects the state’s congressional delegation would push for acceptance of the same wolf management plan that Jackson overturned, although perhaps with additional language making the buffer population a legal requirement.
“Other than that, I think it’s an extraordinarily good plan,” Mead said. “And I think the history and the hunts we’ve had show it’s working and it’s working well — that wolves were being managed very conservatively and that we more than met a necessary buffer.”
Wyoming’s wolf management plan designated wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in most areas. The state classified wolves as trophy animals in a zone bordering Yellowstone National Park and has allowed licensed hunters to kill scores of them in the past two hunting seasons.
Wyoming’s approach to wolf management has drawn heavy criticism from national conservation groups.
Tim Preso lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Montana, represented a coalition of groups that sued to overturn Wyoming’s wolf plan.
“In general I would say that the Endangered Species Act was passed by Congress to ensure a rich wildlife heritage for the entire nation,” Preso said. “And if local interests get congressional exemptions anytime there’s a significant endangered species issue in their backyards, that goal will be undermined, and the entire nation will be poorer for it.”