BILLINGS – Federal wildlife officials on Thursday signaled preliminary support for plans to kill gray wolves that prey on big game herds — proposals billed as a way to reduce some of the predators’ impacts while they remain under endangered species protections.
Idaho in September petitioned to kill up to 60 wolves from packs occupying the 2,355-square-mile Lolo zone of the upper Clearwater River Basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a draft environmental review Thursday in which the agency proposed allowing the state to proceed with the plan.
A similar petition from Montana to remove 12 wolves in the Bitterroot Range southwest of Butte remains pending.
Wolves in the Northern Rockies are listed as endangered under court order, but state and federal officials have been looking for ways to curb their population. The Idaho and Montana petitions are the first to take advantage of a 2008 rule by the Fish and Wildlife Service that allowed states to remove wolves if they are harming deer or elk herds.
Under that rule, federal officials must sign off on any proposed wolf removal plans from the states after a scientific review. The rule is under a court challenge by wildlife advocates. A hearing in the case is set for next month in Missoula, before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy.
“They created a rule that wolves will inevitably violate because wolves are just doing what wolves do . There’s no justification for the wolf killing,” said Doug Honnold, a Bozeman attorney representing the plaintiffs.
At least 1,700 wolves are estimated to roam the Northern Rockies, including large populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and packs recently moving into eastern Oregon and Washington. The species’ recovery from widespread extermination last century has brought a backlash from ranchers and sporting groups, as wolf attacks on livestock and big game herds increase.
Montana U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester on Thursday introduced a bill to remove federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho. Two Republican measures before Congress would remove those protections nationwide.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials stressed Thursday that a final decision will not be made until after public comments on Idaho’s plans are considered. But the federal agency’s Idaho supervisor, Brian Kelly said Idaho Fish and Game officials “seem to have provided pretty good data that wolves are a factor” in declining elk populations in the Lolo zone.
“They’ve tried more liberal hunting seasons on other predators like black bears and mountain lions. They’ve tried habitat improvements, changes in the hunting framework for elk — and they’re still not seeing a response” in terms of elk numbers rebounding, Kelly said.
The environmental review published Thursday opens a 30-day comment period ending March 14. Kelly said it could be weeks or months before a final decision.
Officials in Wyoming also want to reduce wolf numbers in their state, but only Montana and Idaho have federally approved management plans for the species. Those plans are required of any state that petitions to remove wolves for big game impacts.
Wolves across most of the Northern Rockies are considered an “experimental, non-essential” population because they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s instead of naturally colonizing the area.
That designation gives federal officials wider latitude to kill wolves that cause problems, and also allows livestock owners to kill wolves when their animals come under attack.
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