Feds Delist Wyoming Wolves

A wolf howls at sunrise along the edge of a thermal pool at Mary Bay on the north shore of Yellowstone Lake in November 2006. On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced wolves in Wyoming will be removed from Endangered Species Act protections beginning Sept. 30.

JIM LAYBOURN | Star-Tribune correspondent

Wolves will once again leave the endangered species list in Wyoming.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday that it would delist wolves in Wyoming and approve the state’s management and hunting plans.

Under the ruling, wolves will be hunted and managed in a trophy game area in the northwest corner of the state outside of Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, the National Elk Refuge and the Wind River Indian Reservation. They can be shot on sight in the rest of the state.

The ruling will be official Sept. 30, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

Hunting season is scheduled to begin Oct. 1.

Wyoming has worked for nearly a decade to delist wolves in the state. Wolves were delisted for about three months in 2008 before a federal judge placed them back on Endangered Species Act protection because of concerns over genetic diversity

and minimum number requirements. Since then, federal protection had been removed from wolves in Montana and Idaho.

Gov. Matt Mead lauded Friday’s decision.

“The wolf population in Wyoming is recovered, and it is appropriate that the responsibility for wolf management be returned to the state,” he said in a press release.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm representing conservation groups, plans to send the Fish and Wildlife Service an intent-to-sue notice as early as next week. The group must wait 60 days after notification before it can file the lawsuit in court, said Jenny Harbine, an attorney for Earthjustice.

“With today’s delisting decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is authorizing an open season on wolves across 85 percent of the state of Wyoming and leaving wolves elsewhere in Wyoming without an adequate legal safety net,” she said in a release.

Wyoming is the last state in the Northern Rocky Mountains to have wolves removed from the endangered species list.

Changes since 2008

Under Wyoming’s management plan, the state is required to keep a minimum of 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation.

A minimum of five breeding pairs and 50 wolves are required inside Yellowstone.

The state is divided into three areas:

A trophy game area in northwest Wyoming in which wolves will be regulated by hunting.

A small, seasonal-game area in northern Lincoln and Sublette counties in which hunters need licenses for part of the year and can shoot them on sight as predators the other part. Called the “flex zone” it gives more protection to wolves for a portion of the year as they move between Wyoming and Idaho.

In the rest of the state, wolves will be considered predators, meaning they can be shot on sight. The plan allows 52 of the state’s estimated 220 to 230 wolves to be killed this fall in northwest Wyoming outside of Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, the National Elk Refuge and the Wind River Reservation.

The new regulations are similar, in some respects, to those proposed in 2008 when wolves were first delisted. When the U.S. federal judge placed them back on the list, he cited, among other things, concerns over inbreeding because the plan did not allow movement between the wolf populations in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

That is why wildlife officials created the seasonal area south of the trophy game area and near the Idaho border, said Brian Nesvik, chief of the wildlife division for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Wolves will be under a hunting season from Oct. 15 to the end of February, allowing more freedom to move without being killed as predators.

Game and Fish also agreed to genetically monitor wolves to prove genetic exchange.

“I’m very confident this plan is viable and will ensure the long-term management of wolves,” Nesvik said.

The flex zone is an improvement from the 2008 plan, but does not solve the problem, Harbine said.

“Half of the wolf dispersal through this area occurs outside of the season during which killing is regulated,” she said. “There are still geographic and temporal deficiencies.”

The groups Earthjustice represents — Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biologic Diversity and the Sierra Club — are also concerned that no buffer exists between Wyoming’s and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s minimum wolf requirement. Livestock owners, even within the trophy area, can kill wolves if their livestock is threatened.

“That appears to be a loophole that could allow the Wyoming wolf population to drop below the minimal objectives that Fish and Wildlife require,” Harbine said.

That concern will be addressed by the number of wolves the state is allowing people to hunt, Nesvik said. The quota of 52 creates a gradual decrease in the wolf population and includes unforeseen circumstances.

“Our strategy is to ensure at the end of the season we have far more,” he said.

Game and Fish officials can also decline to issue lethal-take permits, which allow livestock owners to kill wolves, if they think the population is reaching the minimum level.

Cost of management

The Wyoming Legislature set aside $600,000 of general fund money to manage wolves for two years, Nesvik said.

The money will pay for costs including flights to put radio collars on wolves and monitor their distribution. It will also cover manpower needed to check each wolf killed during hunting season for a genetic sample.

No additional staff will be hired to help manage wolves. Game and Fish recently restructured its large carnivore section, combining research specialists and conflict management into one group.

It also has a full-time wolf biologist already in its budget. Managing wolves will mean more responsibility, but the group should be able to accomplish delisting goals, Nesvik said.

Wolf tags will be sold over the counter, similar to black bear and mountain lion tags. Hunters will be required to call a hotline to check on the quota for each area before hunting and report a kill within 24 hours. The areas will close when the quota is reached.

Resident licenses will be $18 and nonresident tags $180.

In 2009, during Montana’s first fair chase wolf hunt before the animals were placed back on the endangered species list, the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department sold 15,603 licenses totaling $325,916, according to the department.

Earthjustice will discuss with the conservation groups it represents if, after filing the lawsuit, it will seek an injunction to stop the hunting season. The soonest an injunction could happen would be November, one month after the season’s start, Harbine said.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-746-3121 or christine.peterson@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetersonOutside.

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