CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the governors of the three Rocky Mountain states met Monday in Denver to try to figure out how to turn management of wolves over to the states — including the possibility that Congress could specify that the wolf population is fully recovered.
Salazar met with Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Wyoming Gov.-elect Matt Mead. All three states are anxious to reduce wolf numbers to protect other wildlife and reduce livestock attacks.
“The frustration from both the governors and the secretary is that everybody recognizes that the (wolf) population is not only recovered, but it is robust,” Freudenthal said after the meeting. “And why we can’t get to delisting, I think, is very frustrating for all of the people sitting around that table.”
The federal government originally said it wanted to achieve a wolf population of 300 wolves when it started its reintroduction program in the Northern Rockies in the 1990s. Biologists say there are now at least 1,700 wolves in parts of six states.
Yet environmental groups, through a series of legal challenges over several years, have stymied efforts to transfer wolf management from the federal government to the states.
Wyoming insists on classifying wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in most of the state, a position that has provided the environmental groups’ lawyers with most of their legal ammunition. Wyoming proposes to regulate hunting of wolves only in a “recovery area,” in the northwest corner of the state, on lands generally bordering Yellowstone National Park.
As the legal tangle over wolf management in the Northern Rockies now stands, one federal judge in Montana ruled this summer that Montana and Idaho can’t take over wolf management as long as the federal government continued to manage them in Wyoming. That blocked Montana and Idaho from holding regulated wolf hunts this fall as they had planned.
But another federal judge in Wyoming ruled this month that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to reject Wyoming’s plan in the first place.
Experts differ on whether the judges’ rulings are contradictory. And the federal government also hasn’t said whether it intends to appeal the ruling in the Wyoming case.
Freudenthal said there was no talk at Monday’s meeting about trying to resolve things through the courts. But he said there was much discussion about possible congressional action to end things once and for all.
If Congress does act, Freudenthal said it won’t be to try to exempt wolves from protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act, as some have suggested.
“It’s not an attempt to exempt them,” he said. “It’s to recognize that the population is recovered, and to proceed to recognize that and to try to eliminate the continued litigation that makes it impossible for either the federal government or the states to manage wolf population.”
Freudenthal said possible congressional action could be as soon as this year.
“They’re looking at something in the near term,” he said. “I think it’s a fair question why this legislation couldn’t be addressed later, but there seems to be some interest in moving quickly.”
Freudenthal said some officials of the Fish and Wildlife Service planned to travel to Cheyenne on Monday to meet with his staff and with Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg.
Freudenthal said Wyoming and the other states haven’t committed to anything. And while he emphasized that Wyoming is open to talking about changes it tactics, he said it’s not willing to change its fundamental principle that it needs to be able to manage wolves as it sees fit outside the “recovery area.”
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