CHEYENNE — After years of fighting, the state of Wyoming and the federal government have reached an agreement to remove the state’s roughly 340 wolves from the endangered species list and put them under state control.
The deal between Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, announced Wednesday, must now be ratified by the Wyoming Legislature and pass a lengthy federal approval process. Gov. Matt Mead and state officials have also repeatedly touted a congressional no-litigation clause that would protect the agreement against lawsuits from environmental groups and others.
Under the so-called dual-status plan, wolves in the northwest part of the state would be protected as trophy game, meaning they could only be hunted with a license.
In addition, a flex area will be created in Sublette and Lincoln counties, in which wolves would be protected only from October 15 until the end of the following February so they can connect with other wolves in Idaho.
Unregulated killing of the animals would be permitted in the rest of the state.
Under the plan, Wyoming would be required to maintain 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, outside Yellowstone National Park. That’s about a third of current wolf numbers outside Yellowstone, according to Mead.
The 60 or so wolves in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks — which includes five to six breeding pairs — would be delisted but wouldn’t be under state control.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar worked out the terms of the agreement “in principle” during a meeting in Cheyenne last month with Mead and Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe. Salazar said in a release Wednesday that he looks forward to implementing “this responsible management approach guided by science.”
“The recovery of the gray wolf serves as a great example of how the Endangered Species Act can work to keep imperiled animals from sliding into extinction,” Salazar said in the release. “The agreement we’ve reached with Wyoming recognizes the success of this iconic species and will ensure the long-term conservation of gray wolves.”
Mead said wolves have long preyed on livestock and game animals such as moose and elk in the state.
“This is far from the end of this process, but I think we have come up with something that fits with Wyoming’s values and economy,” Mead said in the release. “Wolves are recovered in Wyoming; let’s get them off the endangered species list.”
Bryce Reece, executive vice president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, said the management plan will give a needed legal shield to sheep producers so they can protect their animals from wolf attacks.
“The governor’s plan will work for our members,” he said.
However, Reece said he worried that environmental groups were drafting lawsuits against the plan “as we speak.” And he voiced concern whether in the coming months Fish and Wildlife will do a good enough job explaining why it’s delisting wolves in Wyoming.
“Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t do a very good job of explaining their decisions,” Reece said. “And that’s just critical in a lawsuit, because they have to do an adequate job of explaining that.”
Chris Colligan, a Jackson-based wildlife advocate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said he, too, wants Fish and Wildlife to give a good explanation about why it’s now accepting a dual-status wolf plan even though it’s rejected similar plans in the past.
This plan, Colligan said, is based on politics instead of science. When wolves were delisted in five other Western states in April, he pointed out, they were given statewide trophy-game status.
“It seems to be just that inconsistency and the Department of the Interior’s willingness to walk away from wolf management,” Colligan said.
Colligan said he didn’t want to predict if lawsuits would be filed against the agreement.
“But I think that history repeats itself,” he said.
Wyoming’s congressional delegation hailed the agreement.
U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who last month inserted a no-litigation clause for any Wyoming wolf deal into a still-pending appropriations bill, praised Mead for reaching a deal over an issue that’s been simmering since wolves were reintroduced by the federal government to the state in 1995.
“Today marks one more step in the considerable progress Wyoming has recently made in returning management of the fully recovered gray wolf to our own state experts,” Lummis said in a media release. “For years, Wyoming has worked in good faith to produce and defend a wolf management plan. These labors have been difficult and, frankly, haven’t produced results — until today.”
U.S. Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi also lauded the deal, saying it was long overdue.
“I am grateful to see movement on an issue that has limited the state’s ability to address a local problem for so many years,” Enzi said in a media release.
“After years of unnecessary delay, it’s good that we are finally seeing progress from Washington on this issue,” Barrasso said in a release.
However, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., the top-ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, wrote Salazar on Wednesday to “express grave concern” about the agreement. The minimum population standards in the deal would mean 40 percent of Wyoming’s current estimated wolf population will die, he wrote, and suggested that the agreement was based on politics, not just science.
“Science, not politics, should ensure the conservation and management [of] the gray wolves in Wyoming, should they be delisted,” Markey wrote in the letter.