By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
Responding to concerns from environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday that it will study whether gray wolves in Wyoming and elsewhere in the West should be relisted as a threatened or endangered species.
In May and July, a slew of organizations — including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States, the Sierra Club, the Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians — filed two petitions with the Secretary of the Interior. The groups claim new laws in the states of Idaho and Montana will “drastically reduce their wolf populations.”
On Wednesday, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the petitions presented “substantial, credible information” that relisting the species may be warranted and that the agency will conduct a status review.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., immediately denounced the decision.
“Today’s actions are just more of the endless political antics from Washington bureaucrats and extreme environmentalists who have no interest in doing what’s right for Wyoming,” Barrasso said in a statement. “Wyoming, not Washington, continues to be in the best position to manage the state’s wolf population.”
In a Thursday statement, Gov. Mark Gordon said he’s confident in Wyoming’s wolf management program, saying it both meets wolf population targets while allowing producers to protect their livestock.
“Ours was a hard-fought and careful process that resulted in a unique plan that works. If it’s not broken we don’t need to fix it,” he said. “Wyoming will stand by our plan, which is supported with unassailable data.”
Gordon called Fish and Wildlife’s action was an attempt to usurrp state authority.
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., similarly said that the wolf has recovered and called Fish and Wildlife’s announcement an example of why the Endangered Species Act must be reformed.
“Activists should not be able to take advantage of the ESA’s loopholes,” Cheney said Thursday. “We must update this law to prevent this from happening and ensure that local stakeholders and states, as opposed to the federal government, are calling the shots when it comes to these decisions.”
According to the May petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and Humane Society of the United States, hunters, trappers and private contractors in Idaho can kill up to 90% of the state’s estimated 1,500 wolves, using new — and highly effective — methods of hunting previously unavailable. In Montana, new rules could pave the way for killing approximately 85% of the population, currently reported to be at 1,200 wolves, the groups charge.
“Unless the Service restores federal protections, the region’s wolves will soon lose decades of progress toward recovery,” the petition says.
Bonnie Rice, senior representative with Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, said the goal of Montana’s and Idaho’s “extreme” new laws is to decimate wolf populations in the northern Rockies.
“It makes no sense to allow wolves to be driven back to the brink of extinction and reverse over 40 years of wolf recovery efforts,” she said.
The groups asked the federal government to immediately protect gray wolves in the Northern Rockies with emergency listing authority, but the service did not grant that request.
“I’m hopeful that wolves will eventually get the protection they deserve, but the Fish and Wildlife Service should have stopped the wolf-killing now,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The service says it did find the petitions provided substantial information that potential increases in human-caused mortality may pose a threat to the gray wolf in the western U.S. The Service also said the new regulatory mechanisms in Idaho and Montana may be inadequate to address threats. “Therefore, the Service finds that gray wolves in the western U.S. may warrant listing,” the agency wrote.
Fish and Wildlife’s next steps will “include in-depth status reviews and analyses using the best available science and information to arrive at a 12-month finding on whether listing is warranted.”
When the Trump administration removed all gray wolves in the contiguous United States from protections in 2020, several groups threatened legal action. Under one of President Joe Biden’s first executive orders, federal agencies were asked to review controversial actions taken by the Trump administration — including stripping federal protections from gray wolves.
In August, the Biden administration said it was sticking by the decision to lift protections for gray wolves across most of the U.S. But federal wildlife officials said there was growing concern over aggressive wolf hunting seasons adopted for the predators.
In May, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said that the state’s gray wolf populations have remained stable and are at “healthy levels.” At the end of 2020, there were at least 327 wolves in Wyoming, marking the 19th straight year in which wolf numbers remained above minimum delisting criteria. The Game and Fish said the figures also showed “the way the presence of the animal has become integrated into the broader ecosystem.”