Washington D.C.—A two sentence rider, attached to the 2011 U.S. Government budget bill, ended years of debate over the reintroduction and recovery of gray wolves in Montana and Idaho. Montana U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and Idaho U.S. Representative Mike Simpson, drafted the rider, reinstating a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decision to remove wolves from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection in the Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment (DPS). President Obama signed the budget bill, with the attached rider, into law, removing about 1,700 wolves from ESA protection, and turning wolf management back over to the two states.
The second sentence of the rider stated that the de-listing decision “shall not be subject to judicial review,” in effect overturning a 2010 U.S. District Court ruling in favor of a coalition of 14 environmental and conservation groups that sued the FWS for de-listing wolves in Montana and Idaho, while keeping Wyoming wolves under federal control. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said, “The fact is, after years of lawsuits, wolf de-listing got stuck in unacceptable gridlock, acrimony and dispute. The debate was consuming FWS resources that could be spent recovering other species.” The federal government, through the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), has been responsible for wolf management since the predator was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1974.
The Northern Rocky Mountain DPS encompasses Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington. Gray wolves will remain endangered under the ESA in Wyoming, although FWS is working closely with that state to develop a wolf management plan that will sustain a wolf population there.
The de-listing of wolves in the Northern Rockies will not affect the legal status of wolves that disperse outside the DPS boundaries. According to ESA rules, a wolf is tied to its present location, rather than its point of origin. Wolves west of the DPS boundary in Oregon and Washington, and any wolves in California or Nevada are still considered endangered under the ESA and have the full protection of the law. The de-listing of gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains, with the exception of Wyoming, took effect on May 5, 2011.
On May 6, 2011, four wolf advocacy groups filed yet another lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana, arguing that Congress can’t tell a court what laws a court can, or can’t, consider. The suit further claims the budget rider violates the separation of powers doctrine contained in the U.S. Constitution. “These decisions must be based on science, not political fiat,” argued Michael Garrity, director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
The best science strongly supports FWS conclusion that the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS wolves are biologically recovered. The DPS contains more than 1,700 wolves, 244 packs and more than 110 successfully breeding pairs, and it has exceeded recovery goals for 11 consecutive years. “The budget rider doesn’t explicitly repeal a judicial ruling, nor does it change the Endangered Species Act,” Senator Tester’s spokesman Aaron Murphy said. “It simply restores an approved, science-based decision that allows Montana and Idaho to responsibly manage its wolves like any other recovered species.”
In the winters of 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. This “experimental/non-essential” population quickly expanded its core range, and began mingling with “naturally occurring” wolves that were dispersing south from Canada into northern Montana and Idaho. FWS set a recovery goal of 30 breeding pairs, and a minimum of 300 wolves, well dispersed throughout the three-state recovery area, for 3 consecutive years. Wolves reached that goal by 2002. “Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act,” Secretary Salazar said. “The gray wolf’s biological recovery reflects years of work by scientists, wildlife managers and our state, tribal, and stakeholder partners to bring wolf populations back to healthy levels.”
The Hard Facts
As wolf numbers grew, so did depredations on big game, domestic livestock and pets. The wolf debate grew right along with wolf numbers, and groups on both sides of the debate polarized into “wolf lovers” and “wolf haters.” Defenders of Wildlife stepped in and began reimbursing livestock owners for confirmed wolf kills. Wildlife agencies in the 3 states, began using “control measures” to remove problem wolves, sometimes removing whole packs. Each state began developing its own wolf management plan, in preparation for eventual de-listing. Wyoming’s plan was simple: Any wolf found outside the core recovery area around Yellowstone National Park could be killed on sight by any means, year-round.
FWS proposed de-listing wolves in 2008, but that decision was put on hold due to change of administrations in Washington D.C. The Obama administration finalized the proposal in early 2009, but left Wyoming’s wolves under ESA protection because of that state’s unacceptable wolf management plan. Montana and Idaho had public wolf hunting seasons in 2009. Fourteen wolf advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, claiming FWS improperly violated their own recovery rules by dividing the Northern Rockies DPS along state boundaries. The “wolf lovers” won their case in 2010, and public wolf hunting was stopped in Montana and Idaho. Wolves were re-listed.
As the wolf war raged, wolf predation on elk in the Bitterroot Mountains, along the Montana and Idaho border, was held largely responsible for decimating the elk population. Elk hunters howled. Some grumbled that they were going to start self-implementing Wyoming’s wolf management plan. Idaho’s wildlife agency protested the re-listing by stopping all wolf management efforts last October, and stated that they would “cease investigating reports of illegal wolf kills.”
After a U.S. District Court relisted wolves in 2010, Montana and Idaho sought permission to reduce wolf numbers with a special wolf hunt by implementing the ESA 10-J rule that could reduce problem wolves that were classified as “experimental/non-essential” along the Montana/Idaho border. The 10-J exception request became moot with approval of the congressional budget, and its attached wolf de-listing rider, in April 2011.
After de-listing, Idaho moved quickly to reduce wolf numbers in the “Lolo Zone,” along the Montana border, intending to use helicopters to kill up to 60 wolves, leaving about 30 wolves in the zone. The aerial shooting resulted in only 5 kills, because the wolves had followed the elk down out of the snow into the dense tree-canopied lower-elevation spring feeding areas. Idaho also authorized hunting outfitters and guides, out spring bear hunting, to shoot any wolves they found in the zone, with hopes of reducing wolf predation on elk calves. Wildlife officials may resume aerial wolf control measures this winter, when wolves are easier to spot from the air.
Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission is expected to include a wolf trapping season to further reduce wolf numbers when they meet in July. Idaho’s rifle and archery seasons start in September. Nonresidents will pay a total of $340.75 for a hunting license and wolf tag, over-the-counter, if they are coming to Idaho solely to hunt wolves. Resident hunters will pay an additional $11.50 for a wolf tag. Idaho won’t set a wolf take quota or finalize their regulations until later in the year.
Montana will offer 54, of a proposed 220, wolf tags state wide, to hunters on the Montana side of the border adjacent to Idaho’s Lolo Zone. Montana archery hunters will get the first shots at wolves starting September 3. Back country rifle hunters can take wolves starting September 15. Montana’s wolf hunting season will last until December 31, unless the wolf kill quota is filled before then. Montana residents can buy a wolf tag for $19; nonresidents $360, including a $10 conservation permit, over-the-counter, if they are hunting only wolves. But, no wolf tag is valid until 5 days after purchase. Montana Fish and Game Commission will meet in July and review public comment prior to finalizing their regulations. Montana has 500-700 wolves, and Idaho has 700-1,000.
FWS will closely monitor Idaho’s and Montana’s wolf management activity for at least the next 5 years. Each state is expected to maintain a minimum of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs, or risk re-listing wolves on the ESA. The federal government will continue to fund wolf management in Wyoming.