House revives wolf plan to conform with U.S.


Associated Press
Billings Gazette

CHEYENNE, WYO - With a rising sense of urgency, the House on Thursday revived attempts to avoid a court battle over Wyoming's wolf-management plan.

The House voted 51-8 in favor of House Bill 155, sponsored by Rep. Mike Baker, R-Thermopolis, that would conform the state's plan to federal requests.

An identical measure failed in the Senate on a 15-12 vote Thursday. Its sponsor, Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, reacted by slamming the bill into his desk drawer and sitting down.

"This bill and those over in the House are the last thing between us and a lawsuit versus Fish and Wildlife," he said.

Baker urged his colleagues to keep the House version alive as a way to keep the state's choices open for wolf management.

"After this bill, we will have only one option, and that is to go to court," he said.

Baker is chairman of the House Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources, which questioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams on Wednesday about federal objections to Wyoming's plan.

Williams said it would be mid-2005 at the earliest for removing wolves from the Endangered Species List should the Legislature agree this session to changes such as regulating hunting of wolves in areas outside the national park area rather than allowing the animals to be shot on sight.

"The bill as it stands is only a placeholder to bring another possible option to you," Baker said.

He said he would sponsor a two-page amendment during committee discussions to improve the bill.

Both measures attempt to break a logjam over the state's plan to manage wolves once they are removed from the federal Endangered Species List. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected Wyoming's plan last month, prompting threats of litigation from state officials.

Removing federal protection for gray wolves in the Yellowstone area and turning management over to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming won't be done until the agency deems Wyoming's plan acceptable.

Burns' bill also would have addressed the government's concerns, removing a predator classification for wolves outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and their surrounding wilderness areas and agreeing to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs, among other items.

Burns said he was waiting for written confirmation from Fish and Wildlife that it would delist the wolf after receiving Wyoming's compromise. If he didn't get that within two days, Burns vowed to kill the measure.

Interior officials don't believe the current proposal can be defended in court because it would allow wolves to essentially be shot on sight in much of the state.

If the state drops the predator label in favor of regulated hunting of wolves in areas away from the national parks and maintains at least 10 breeding pairs, the plan would be more palatable, officials have said.

Gray wolves are protected under the Endangered Species Act. They were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after being nearly wiped out by hunting and trapping across the West.

There are now about 760 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

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