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CHEYENNE — For the past two weeks, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has blocked the nomination of the new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency stalled on replying to state negotiators over a Wyoming wolf management plan.

And Barrasso will continue to delay a Senate confirmation vote of Daniel Ashe as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, even though the agency has again started communicating with state officials about a wolf deal, according to a congressional source.

For years, Fish and Wildlife has refused to accept Wyoming’s state wolf management plan and remove the state’s roughly 300 wolves from the federal endangered species list. The state’s plan allows unregulated killing of the animals in all but the northwest corner of the state. Fish and Wildlife, on the other hand, wants wolves to be classified as “trophy game” throughout the state, meaning they could only be hunted with a license.

During a meeting in Cheyenne with Gov. Matt Mead in late March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

suggested a deadline of a month to reach an agreement on a management plan, said Mead spokesman Renny MacKay.

Following the meeting, Wyoming’s wolf negotiators sent off a formal letter to Fish and Wildlife detailing the state’s position, MacKay said. But for the next 40 days or so, they got no reply.

“They just weren’t talking to us,” MacKay said.

In response, Barrasso placed the hold on Ashe’s nomination on May 27. A little more than a week later, on June 6, Fish and Wildlife sent a formal response to the state’s letter. Negotiations have continued since then, MacKay said.

But while Barrasso is pleased that “progress has been made,” the congressional source said, he’ll continue to keep the hold in place to make sure Fish and Wildlife doesn’t break off communication again.

A phone call and email to the U.S. Department of the Interior seeking comment were not returned Tuesday afternoon.

MacKay said while the governor didn’t know beforehand that Barrasso planned to place the hold on Ashe’s nomination, he’s glad that wolf negotiations have resumed.

But like Barrasso, Mead is wary about Fish and Wildlife staying in touch on a regular basis in the future, MacKay said.

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“The governor appreciates that we’re making progress, but there’s more to do on this issue,” MacKay said.

Barrasso is only the latest in a line of Republican senators who have held up Ashe’s nomination in order to resolve grievances against the Interior Department and the Obama administration.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has also blocked Ashe’s nomination until Salazar turns over all documents relating to the administration’s proposed “Wild Lands” policy, which, until it was abandoned earlier this month, could have made millions of acres of undeveloped land in the West eligible for federal wilderness protection. Salazar’s office complied in part with Lee’s request last week.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., lifted his 3 ½-month hold on Ashe’s nomination after the Obama administration approved 15 deepwater-well drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico and allayed his concerns about the drilling process.

Another opponent, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said last month he wouldn’t block Ashe’s nomination after Salazar and Ashe met with the senator about global warming policies and the potential endangered listing of the lesser prairie chicken.

Few, if any, of the holdups have been caused by concerns about Ashe himself, a Maryland resident who currently serves as Fish and Wildlife’s deputy director for policy.

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Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at (307) 632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jpelzer.

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