Pro-Wolf Groups Blew It

By Beacon Staff

Everybody following the wolf issue knows how bad it is, politically. About the only way it could get worse would be a wolf breaking into an urban backyard and biting a child.

Federal District Judge Donald Molloy’s Aug. 5 ruling putting the Big Dog back on the endangered species list and stopping hunts in Idaho and Montana was that proverbial last straw for a lot of people, even fence sitters who like wolves and supported reintroduction.

I’ve written frequently urging stakeholders to sit down, outside of a courthouse, and work out a compromise. But in all these years, at least as far as I know, there has never been even one meeting. Now, I have to think the pro-wolfers blew their chance to cut the best deal they could have gotten. I bet they could have locked in a much higher minimum population level and won other concessions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the state wildlife agencies, at least Idaho and Montana, but they didn’t even try. Instead, they kept going to the courts, and now, they’ll be lucky to salvage the integrity of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

So, we move onto the next chapter in the neverending story. The plaintiffs (list at end of column) might think that’s the next round in the courthouse brawl, but not the defendants. They’re going to Congress.

As we languish in this ridiculous ego-centric impasse where neither side wants to show a sign of weakness by making the first move, anger has swollen to a point where some agencies and sporting groups refuse to even say the words, “settle” or “settlement” because they fear it might imply they gave into the pro-wolfers. Even if the plaintiffs had a sudden change of heart, it probably wouldn’t matter.

Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) has already drafted a bill to override Molloy’s ruling by prohibiting the wolf from being listed under the ESA and giving “exclusive” management to the states of Idaho and Montana.

“After hearing from Montanans at my listening sessions around the state,” Rehberg wrote on his website, “I’ve taken a first step by having a draft bill drawn up, but before I introduce it, it’s important to hear what Montanans think.”

Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both Republicans, have also drafted a bill to override Molloy’s ruling.

“This legislation will delist wolves in Idaho and permit the state to manage the species effectively and humanely, as we were doing before Judge Molloy’s most recent decision to relist wolves,” Crapo wrote on his website.

The Crapo-Risch bill requires the Department of the Interior to de-list wolves in Idaho and Montana (and amazingly, also in Oregon, Washington and Utah) and leaves Wyoming out there in the cold, by itself, going it alone, just like the Cowboy State likes it.

The clause de-listing wolf populations in Oregon, Washington and Utah should give the greens a wake-up call. Those populations are small, struggling and obviously still endangered, but if the Idaho senators have their way, they’ll lose all federal protection.

Montana’s Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, have also introduced a bill, yet unnumbered, but titled the Restoring State Wildlife Management Act of 2010. Their bill seems to closely parallel the approach taken by their fellow senators in Idaho, except it does not include delisting for Oregon, Utah and Washington. In the Sept. 29 press release sent out by the senators, the Montana Wildlife Federation, representing 7,500 sportsmen and women, along with two major agriculture groups, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Farm Bureau, strongly supported the Baucus-Tester bill.

Delegations in other western delegations are also working on a “legislative solution” to the wolf delisting gridlock.

To me, all this says something is likely to happen; it doesn’t seem like the normal, knee-jerk congressional saber rattling you often hear. Forget science. It had its chance. Now, it’s all politics, and nobody is even trying to pretend otherwise. I believe the Rehberg or Crapo-Risch bills, if passed, would be the first time Congress has ever intervened to make a species-specific decision the FWS is supposed to make.

I can assure you that the plaintiffs don’t want to see this happen, but if they’d like to blame somebody for it, they should look in the mirror. They pushed too hard, too long.

Anti-environmental, pro-development groups have been chomping at the bit for decades to “fix” or “enhance” the ESA. Now, wolf advocates may have given them their chance and possibly jeopardized what’s widely considered the most powerful environmental law ever. When it gets opened up for amendment, for any reason, back at our big sausage factory in Washington, D.C., anything can happen – and it’s unlikely to be a good thing. And once the precedent is set, de-listing advocates will routinely go back to Congress for resolution instead of fighting long, losing court battles.

The plaintiffs and other pro-wolf groups, heavy on the East and West coasts, believe they have the power to prevent any opening of the ESA. Well, regrettably, we’ll soon see if their confidence is well founded.

My reading of the political tea leaves tells me we have so much anger and frustration pushing for a congressional “solution” to the wolf issue that it could easily and quickly happen – something like a midnight rider tacked onto a must-pass bill without debate or hearings (it happens all the time, folks) in the upcoming lame-duck session. And presto, it’s over; the wolf is de-listed.

That might be the right last chapter for the neverending story, but it sure seems like the wrong way to write it.

Who are the Plaintiffs? Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Friends of the Clearwater, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oregon Wild, Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States, Western Watersheds Project, and Wildlands Network. Represented by EarthJustice.