Wyoming to sue over wolf impasse

Of The Billings Gazette Staff


Unable to resolve differences at the negotiating table, Wyoming soon will take its fight over wolf management to federal court, a state official said Tuesday.

Michael O'Donnell, Wyoming's chief deputy attorney general, said the state would challenge the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's rejection in January of the state management plan for wolves.

The lawsuit, which will be filed in a federal court in Wyoming, will claim that the federal agency wrongly opposed Wyoming's wolf plan despite a review by a scientific panel in which a majority agreed that the plan would be adequate.

"We think we've got a pretty good argument," O'Donnell said. "They acted arbitrarily in rejecting the Wyoming plan."

The suit will ask a federal judge to order the Fish and Wildlife Service to accept Wyoming's plan and begin the process of removing the wolves from the endangered species list.

The news comes as the U.S. Department of Interior plans to announce, possibly today, that it will allow state officials in Montana and Idaho to take an expanded role in managing wolves, even though the species has not yet been delisted.

The move toward delisting has been a long and contentious process in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. It now is in a holding pattern, especially after Wyoming lawmakers last week failed to find agreement on a bill that would change the state law that acted as a blueprint for a wolf plan.

Federal officials say the wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains, which was reintroduced in 1995 and 1996, has reached population thresholds that warrant lifting federal restrictions and passing management to the three states.

In recent years, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have developed plans to manage wolves. The federal government has approved plans for Montana and Idaho but rejected Wyoming's. Delisting cannot occur until all three state plans are approved.

In rejecting Wyoming's plan, Steve Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said his agency could not accept Wyoming's classification of some wolves as predators, meaning that they could be shot on sight.

Williams also voiced concerns about how the state law defined wolf pack sizes.

Meeting in a budget session, Wyoming lawmakers last month grappled with several bills, including two that would have changed the state wolf law to comply with suggestions from Williams.

When those bills didn't pass muster with lawmakers, Gov. Dave Freudenthal's office decided that a lawsuit was the next best step.

O'Donnell said the suit should be completed in the next week or so.

"It's safe to say we're not going to go outside of Wyoming for this suit," O'Donnell said. "We're going to file this suit where the wolves are."

A key part of the lawsuit will hinge on what O'Donnell said is a disparity between Williams' rejection of the plan and a review of the plan by other wolf scientists.

Last fall, 11 wolf experts reviewed all three state plans. Ten of them said the plans appeared to be adequate for sustaining wolf populations if federal protections were lifted. It doesn't make sense that the peer review would approve the plans, but the federal agency would reject the one from Wyoming, O'Donnell said.

"The law says the decision is supposed to be made on the best available science," he said.

O'Donnell and Freudenthal also voiced frustration that Wyoming seemed to get mixed messages from the Interior Department while the plan was being developed.

"It was a painful political process," he said. "All this blood gets shed, we thought we had their endorsement up front and then they changed their minds."

In a recent interview, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said that her agency has been consistent with Wyoming.

"All I can say is that we've worked with them and will continue to work with them to try to help them get a management plan that could be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service," Hugh Vickery, an Interior spokesman, said Tuesday.



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