Ruff life 

Montana pushes to take control of its wolves

While not as tenacious as the supposedly nuclear-resistant cockroach, wolves are capable of occupying niches almost anywhere in North America. Of course that’s contingent on North America’s most dominant species, humans, tolerating wolves as neighbors.

“It’s like that old saying,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs. “Wolf habitat is in the human heart. Wolves can live anywhere that people will let them live.”

Bangs knows—he’s been working to carve out habitat where people will let wolves live for the last 14 years. Now, as the $17 million recovery project comes to a close, he says the gray wolf is about a year away from coming off the endangered species list.

“We’ll not be able to complete the process before January 2004,” he says. “And it will probably end up being later rather than earlier because with wolf stuff everybody and their brother wants to comment.”

Rep. Dan Fuchs (R-Billings), meanwhile, isn’t content with the later, rather than earlier, scenario.

“We’re not going to allow the federal government to go on forever promising that they’re going to delist the wolf when we can’t manage them until they do,” says Fuchs.

Fuchs is sponsoring House Bill 283, a preemptive strike that would give the feds an ultimatum: delist the gray wolf by the end of the year or the state will classify Montana’s wolves as predators. Such a classification would constitute a de facto delisting of the wolves, and give ranchers the go-ahead to kill the animals legally.

Fuchs has spoken with ranchers, outfitters and small-business owners who point to the wolf as one reason for the state’s troubled economy. Fuchs reports that wolves have decimated the elk herds upon which outfitters depend for their livelihood, and are taking calves and sheep that ranchers can’t afford to lose.

“If there’s a pack that’s getting into someone’s sheep or livestock over in the Bitterroot, we’ve got to be able to have the state Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) take care of that pack and eliminate that problem,” he says

Currently, FWP and ranchers have no authority to deal with “problem wolves” that attack livestock. If the animals were no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act, or if Fuchs’ bill classified them as predators, ranchers would be empowered to protect their livestock.

The bill is also intended to speed up the delisting process by making pro-wolf groups powerless to halt delisting with lawsuits. But Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) Vice President of Species Conservation Nina Fascione says that Fuchs’ bill won’t stop DOW or other conservation groups from challenging faulty wolf-management plans.

“If it looks like the feds are yanking federal protections while the states have really bad management plans, we may litigate,” says Fascione. “Idaho and Wyoming aren’t even pretending they want wolves. Montana actually has the best management plan of all the states, so it’s kind of a shame to see this bill and this kind of reaction.”

Fascione says DOW doesn’t want to challenge the delisting with a lawsuit, but it also doesn’t want to see Montana, Wyoming and Idaho—the three Northwestern states that must solidify management plans before delisting can occur—rushed into inadequate plans. She says she understands the frustration the states are feeling at delisting’s snail pace, but doesn’t think it will do the states, the feds or the wolves any good to hurry the delisting along.

“To take an animal that was endangered and then the day after you remove federal protection to have a wide-open hunting season doesn’t seem to make sense,” she says. “You’ve got to ensure the long-range survival of the species and that it’s not going to be relisted.”

The “wide-open hunting season” statement refers to Fuchs’ bill and similar bills in Wyoming that classify wolves as predators or allow them to be hunted.

DOW may not see eye to eye with the feds and states, but Fascione doesn’t want her organization characterized as anti-delisting.

“Ultimately our goal is to see wolves removed from the endangered species list,” she says. “I keep trying to emphasize that, because I don’t want the Defenders to have the reputation that we never want wolves removed. The goal of listing a species is to see them recovered.”

But just as DOW doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, Fuchs doesn’t think it’s accurate for conservationists to categorize his bill as irrational. If there’s an aspect of irrationality to wolf delisting, it’s the protracted pace at which it’s come, he says.

“This thing has gone way beyond what the original reintroduction was meant to be,” he says. “[The bill is] clearly not about the eradication of the wolf. That’s not my intent. We just want to paint it in a bit.”

Wolf expert Bangs agrees with Fuchs that granting ranchers the power to shoot wolves that attack livestock won’t lead to wolf eradication. The population is at such a healthy size that killing wolves that have become “too bold” won’t put the species as a whole back on the endangered species list.

Even Fascione acknowledges that the states need control of the animals, but she sees an anti-wolf climate that may lead to shaky wolf-management plans. She also worries about a classic Western ethos: don’t let the feds push us around.

“The Montana bill is clearly making a statement, but I guess they are forgetting that federal law supercedes state law, so it’s not going to be legal,” says Fascione. “They can’t just say, ‘now we’re in charge.’”

Regardless of the fact that federal law trumps state law, it may never come to a courtroom showdown. Fuchs has a promise from assistant Interior Department secretary Craig Manson that wolves will be delisted this year. While that’s encouraging, Fuchs says he’s not going to call off his dogs until the feds have once and for all relinquished control of Montana’s wolf population to the state.

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