|Wolves' Numbers Increase in West
By Valerie Richardson
The Washington Times
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Denver, Colorado - The gray wolf relocation program has proven such a howling success after seven years that the wolves are on the verge of being removed from the endangered species list.
But that won't happen without a fight. Some environmentalist groups are vowing to challenge the delisting, fearing that the Western states will declare open season on the wolves as soon as their federal protection is withdrawn.
"If federal protections are removed, it could be a free-for-all," said Nina Faccione, vice president for species conservation at Defenders for Wildlife. "They could receive predator status, which would mean they could be hunted with no protection at all."
Next month, the Fish and Wildlife Service plans to propose downgrading the Canadian gray wolf's status from "endangered" to "threatened." By spring, the service hopes to submit a rule that would delist the wolf entirely.
"For an endangered species, the wolf has made a remarkable recovery," said Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has run the program since the wolves were flown in from Canada in 1995.
"But it's the Endangered Species Act, not the employment security act," Mr. Bangs said. "Congress said the purpose of the act is to keep them from becoming endangered. Now we have a viable population that's not endangered, and when that happens, Congress says to delist them."
Mr. Bangs counts about 700 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, including the experimental population at Yellowstone National Park. The wolves still are moving: One adult male surprised federal biologists last month when he wandered into Utah.
Before the wolves can be delisted, the three states must draw up management plans that meet federal requirements while balancing the concerns of ranchers, hunters and environmentalists. The process hasn't been easy: Only Idaho has adopted a plan, while Montana and Wyoming continue to debate the issue.
In Wyoming, state Agriculture Department Director Ron Micheli fueled the fears of environmentalists when he said the wolves were "not wildlife, they're predators."
Delisting the species would make it easier for ranchers to shoot wolves when they threaten their herds.
Under the federal rules, ranchers can fire at wolves only when they catch them in the act of attacking a sheep or calf.
Federal biologists have tried to aid ranchers by killing wolves that continue to attack herds, shooting more than 100 since the program began. Critics fear that number will skyrocket once the states take over, but Mr. Bangs said that won't happen.
"The bottom line is, [environmentalists] don't want delisting because they don't trust the states," he said. "The service is saying, 'We'll trust, but verify.' If they start shooting, we can always go in with an emergency listing."
At the same time, he noted that many states deserve praise for their own homegrown efforts to recover endangered species such as the mountain lion.
Greg Nelson, spokesman for the Idaho Farm Bureau, which has opposed the wolf-relocation program, said ranchers had no interest in targeting wolves, as long as they stay out of trouble.
"We'd like to see them delisted so they can be managed by the state," said Mr. Nelson. "But it won't be an open war on the wolves. As long as they're up in the wilderness areas and not attacking livestock, I suppose nobody cares much."
Ed Bangs -- email@example.com or 406-449-5225 ext. 204 -- federal wolf recovery coordinator in Helena, Montana. Mr. Bangs is in charge of all federal wolf management in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.