Federal biologists say species has recovered, but battle to end protections is just beginning

Great Falls Tribune Staff Writer

Montana - 8/4/02 - Wolves couldn't have landed on a better doorstep.

The irony of a 2-year-old black male wolf diving into a contained flock of purebred sheep and slaughtering 18 ewes and a lamb on Chase Hibbard's property underscores what many in the Northern Rockies believe is a quickly approaching crisis.

In addition to being a sheep and cattle rancher, Hibbard is chairman of Montana's Wolf Management Advisory Council. The collared wolf, No. 203 of the Chief Joseph Pack from just north of Yellowstone National Park, traveled the equivalent of 135 air miles in April to reach Hibbard's ranch east of Wolf Creek.

"I've expected that it would occur eventually. There's a straight line from Glacier to Yellowstone that runs right through the ranch," Hibbard said. "I was surprised it happened this soon. To me, that was a very good indication that the wolf is recovered, and that we need to take a hard look at the way we manage the wolf as a result."

The wolf population increased so markedly the last few years that federal biologists say that by the end of this year, the gray wolf no longer will need to hold a spot on the Endangered Species list.

Many in the West also worry that the wolf will remain federally protected while the population explodes across the region and governments get mired in bureaucratic processes.

Some environmental organizations, meanwhile, argue that the population isn't yet recovered.

Before federal protections are lifted, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming all must have management plans in place. Those plans must be accepted by the federal government and survive much-anticipated litigation.

They also have to identify ways to pay for the annual estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million cost of managing the wolf in the tri-state area. That includes keeping track of and monitoring wolf populations in areas, protecting Montana's livestock industry and wildlife populations, and balancing diverse public interests.

Despite the potential roadblocks, there are optimists who believe the federal protections will end -- or at least be reduced -- in the near future.

In December the three states had a combined 560 wolves, and probably 150 pups have been born since. In Montana those wolves are primarily in Yellowstone and the northwestern portion of the state.

Biologically, the population is substantial enough to justify removing the gray wolf from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, say federal biologists. Politically, the battle lines still are being drawn.

"This is a crisis that is brewing, and the problem is multiplying at an alarming rate," said Rep. Joe Balyeat, vice chairman of the house Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee. "The federal bureaucracy is slower-moving than molasses on a cold winter day. If that bureaucracy moves as slowly with this wolf delisting as we have seen them move in the past, we are in major, major trouble."

Balyeat, a Bozeman Republican, and other members of the House and Senate Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee are so concerned that they will meet during this week's special legislative session to discuss problems associated with a growing wolf population. Balyeat said he wouldn't be talking about wolves at a time when the state is scrambling to cut millions from its budgets if it weren't absolutely critical.

Gov. Judy Martz also is concerned.

"A strong potential exists that the federally established process could be tied up for years in frivolous lawsuits," she said. "I am gravely concerned that the bureaucratic nightmare to delist the wolf will only serve to cause harm to Montana stockgrowers, private property owners and Montana sportsmen."

Plans proceeding

Two years ago, the Wolf Management Advisory Council that Hibbard leads started considering wolf management options. The council's findings will be one option for management in Montana.

The state Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department is working on an environmental impact statement for wolf management. Montana's final plan should be complete by the end of the year.

Wyoming is just out of the gates in creating its plan. Wyoming's Legislature also still has to change a state law that lists wolves as predators before the federal protections are lifted. In Idaho, possible legal challenges to the state's plan already are being discussed.

"It is critical that the three states work together, and I am cautiously optimistic that all three states will have their federal mandates in place sooner rather than later," Martz said.

Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery coordinator, wants to see wolf management turned over to the states.

The wolf was placed on the list in 1974. Bangs believes the Northern Rockies has momentum on its side. States are eager to take over management, and the federal government has shown a willingness to start turning the wheels of government at an accelerated pace.

Others skeptical

Those in the Great Lakes snicker at such optimism. In Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin population goals to remove federal protections were met years ago, but the states have watched as attempts to reduce those protections at different levels were squashed over and over again.

"The population is at six times the federal cap now. The federal government has not even done the first step yet," said Adrian Wydeven, mammal ecologist for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources.

In Minnesota, where the population officially hit its biological goal as early as the late '80s, the cynicism runs even thicker.

"Minnesota has arguably recovered wolves for more than 20 years now, and the species remains listed," said Mike DonCarlos, a wildlife manager there. "Litigation is going to be the name of the game for every step of the process. It's hard for me to see the end of this."

Greg Schildwachter, policy adviser in the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, doesn't believe the wait here will be as lengthy. He predicts the situation in the Northern Rockies will be a case study for the New Testament of the Endangered Species Act.

"We are all in a position now where we have to share the uncertainty, and that's a formula for a strong businesslike partnership," he said. "Our view is hopefully optimistic."

Quick recovery

The federal timeline projects the Rocky Mountain states will take over management of the wolves in 2004, but with the federal agency checking the status of the species for at least another five years.

Seven years ago, 66 wolves were moved out of Canada and into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. There are now an estimated 123 wolves in Montana, 189 in Wyoming and 251 in Idaho.

It takes 30 breeding pairs of wolves, distributed throughout recovery areas in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming for three years, to constitute a viable and recovered wolf population. At least 34 wolf packs met the definition of "breeding pair," according to the most recent wolf report for the Rocky Mountains.

"It's pretty reassuring to have it come this far this fast," Bangs said. "But I'm not satisfied. I do want to get wolves delisted."

Bangs takes little credit for the carnivore's quick return to dominance in the West. Wolves will live about anywhere that people will let them, he said. Habitat thick with elk and deer in the region also has helped the population reach its mark.

"Wolves are very easy to manage. The emotion is the difficult thing to handle," he said.

Hank Fischer, former Defenders of Wildlife Northern Rockies representative and a member of Montana's Wolf Management Advisory Council, said many people are surprised at how quickly the population recovered. Fischer said he would like to see people take a more practical look at wolves.

"These large carnivores are a symbol of a land that is more healthy and complete, and I think that is something that most Montanans are proud of," he said.

Dan Carney, wildlife biologist on the Blackfeet Reservation, said in the last 15 years only a few wolves passed through the area. He said there hasn't been an increase in livestock kills or the number of wolves. He said knowing that the population is growing overall and may no longer be protected is good news on the reservation. He said that wolves, however, aren't discussed as loudly as grizzly bears, also protected by the Endangered Species Act.

"It's always a question," he said. "But people ask me much more often when the bears will be delisted. It's more an in issue that is in the backyard, literally."

A numbers question

Some environmental organizations don't believe the gray wolf populations truly are recovered -- at least not in a large enough area.

In May, Defenders of Wildlife, Wildlands Project and the Turner Endangered Species Fund turned out a report from 48 scientists around the country urging the government to scrap plans to remove federal protections.

Wolf recovery should happen not only in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies but also in areas like the southern Rockies, said Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. The fund is a nonprofit organization working to ensure the persistence of imperiled species and habitats.

"It is all well and good to claim recovery in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. All the ducks are lining up there," he said. "It does not address wolf recovery elsewhere."

Phillips said the organization has faith that Montana, Idaho and Wyoming can manage gray wolves. He said the fund also doesn't have heartburn over the idea of a recreational harvest of gray wolves.

The National Sierra Club shares some concern about removing wolves from the Endangered Species list. That organization would like to see wolves in areas like Colorado and southern Oregon.

"We think they are trying to get out of the wolf business prematurely," said Bart Semcer, associate Washington, D.C., representative for the National Sierra Club. "We think that more time is necessary."

Both organizations say they don't want to have to turn to litigation as a means to keep wolves protected, but neither group rules out the option.

Downlist or delist

For the last couple of years, the federal government pursued reducing wolf protections in Montana and other areas, dropping the wolf from "endangered" to "threatened." If a species is threatened, livestock owners, for example, have more options in dealing with a rogue carnivore, Bangs said.

Wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and parts of New Mexico and Arizona could be downlisted, he said. Bangs said if delisting does take longer than anticipated, at least having the wolf classified as threatened gives states some latitude.

Some are concerned that if wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is tied with other states it will further complicate the challenges of delisting. But Bangs anticipates that once Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have federally accepted plans, removing wolves entirely from the Endangered Species list should take no more than a year.

The plans have to ensure that the wolf population won't collapse again. Those across the nation also will be given an opportunity to comment on the plan. The federal government will then make the final decision.

Bangs had hoped that the process would start in January, but it will likely be March, he said. He also said it is very likely that litigation will slow down the process.

"Oh yeah, we are going to get sued," he said. "We've been sued from day one. The key thing is that we haven't lost a case yet."

Bangs is confident the three states will do a good job of managing the gray wolf and will be given the opportunity to manage the population.

The money thing

The stickier question is how three Western states already dealing with shoestring budgets will pay management costs. All three states want the federal government to maintain a financial presence.

Fees that hunters pay primarily fund state wildlife management in Montana. Most don't want to pay more, especially for wolves. Some already feel they are paying for wolves, as the carnivores take the deer and elk that bring men and women into the forest every fall for a recreational hunt.

Whether or not wolves have a serious impact on elk populations, however, is a point of much contention, but it is a point Montana legislators are ready to zero in on.

A group of lawmakers outlined those concerns in a letter sent to Gov. Martz in July. The chairman and vice chairmen of both the House and Senate Fish, Wildlife and Parks committees want at least 80 percent of the cost of Montana's management of wolves to come from the federal government. The four legislators who wrote the letter also want federal reimbursement for wildlife and hunting opportunities lost to wolves.

Rep. Dan Fuchs, R-Billings, chairman of the House committee, said he believes elk populations are dropping and costing Montanans millions of dollars.

"We are going to have a huge problem on our hands," he said.

Martz, who long opposed the reintroduction of wolves because of concerns about livestock producers and big game populations, also maintains a hard line on the money issue.

"It is my belief that neither Montana taxpayers nor Montana sportsmen should have to shoulder the financial burden of managing this species," she said. "This is a species that the rest of the nation thought should be re-established in Montana."

The planning document, created by the council headed by Hibbard, suggests seeking funds from special state or federal appropriations, private foundations or other private sources. Martz and the governors of Idaho and Wyoming also are pursuing the concept of a Northern Rocky Mountain Grizzly Bear and Gray Wolf National Management Trust, an idea that started in Wyoming.

Costs vs. benefits

Managing the gray wolf will be a task integrated into the everyday wildlife management the department already does, said Tom Palmer, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Officials in the department are honest about the daunting job ahead.

"No one has done this before. All of us are definitely plowing new ground here," said Carolyn Sime, FWP's wolf management plan coordinator.

The last species delisted in Montana was the peregrine falcon in 1996. Captive breeding and a large volunteer network that hatched young birds quickly and easily helped bring those numbers in line. The department is also on fairly new ground managing a predator that is taken off the Endangered Species List, Palmer said.

But predators aren't something new to the department. Mountain lion numbers were down and they rebounded. The animals now are managed by the department, including a legitimate mountain lion hunting season.

The state received more than 4,000 comments on wolf management options from 110 different Montana zip codes, 49 states and eight foreign countries. With the comments reviewed, the department will put together its management options and recommend the option it feels is the best balance of those 4,000 comments.

The management options will include the answers to funding questions, protecting livestock and even the possibility of a wolf-hunting season. Options all will be up for another round of public review before a decision is made.

"One of the very challenging aspects of wolves is that what one person perceives as a benefit another perceives as a cost," Sime said. "We have to look at the different costs and benefits and try to maximize the benefits."

Sime has every confidence the wolf will be delisted and the states will assume management.

She said one of the most critical aspects of Montana's planning process will be the human element.

"Coming together is needed or the wolves will remain listed," she said. "The longer Montana takes to come to some understanding and some shared agreement, the longer the process will take."

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