JOHN MILLER Associated Press Writer BOISE, Idaho (AP)
New federal wolf management rules expected by Jan. 28 will make it easier to kill problem predators in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming even if lifting Endangered Species Act protections in February is stalled by lawsuits. Environmental groups said such rule changes could lead to unwarranted killing of wolves. Wolf recovery officials said one big reason for expanding the options for killing wolves is that officials expect the removal of federal protections, planned for Feb. 28, to prompt lawsuits from groups such as Defenders of Wildlife. If litigation delays or blocks the lifting of the federal protections, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming want as much flexibility as possible to decide when to kill wolves that are eating too many elk and deer or attacking hunting dogs. "It's just basically a safety valve that we can use if we have to," Steve Nadeau, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's to p wo l f mana ge r, s a i d Wednesday. Last year, Wyoming's lawmakers made expanding these rules a condition of going along with the federal plan to lift protections from wolves. The state wanted to make sure there was "more flexibility for Wyoming to deal with wolves having excessive impacts on elk and deer species," said Eric Keszler, a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish. Wolves were reintroduced into central Idaho and the area including Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming more than a decade ago after being hunted to near extinction. Since then, their numbers have grown to more than 1,500. So have conflicts between livestock and wolves in Idaho, 52 cows and 170 sheep were killed in 2007. And hunters who provide millions in revenue to state wildlife agencies in the form of licenses are complaining that wolves are putting a dent in elk and deer populations. In 2005, in a preliminary step toward removing wolves from Endangered Species Act protections, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released management rules for states, allowing wolves to be killed if they were harassing livestock. But under those rules, only wolves deemed to be the "primary cause" of unacceptable impacts on deer and elk herds could be eliminated. "We set a threshold that has not provided the intended flexibility to allow states and tribes to resolve conflict" among wolves, elk and deer, Fish and Wildlife conceded last July. So under the changes expected by Jan. 28, the states would no longer have to prove wolves are the "primary cause" of unacceptable elk deaths in order to kill them; rather, wolves would merely have to be one of the "major causes." Wolf advocates accuse federal officials of giving in to pressure from Idaho's and Wyoming's complaints. Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Boise, said under the changes, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game could easily resurrect a plan to kill as many as 43 wolves in the Lolo region on the state's border with Montana, an area where elk numbers have fallen far short of the state wildlife agency's goals for big-game hunters. In September 2006, state officials gave up that plan because their studies of the Lolo region demonstrated only that wolves were one of several causes for elk decline. Poor habitat was another cause. Changing the rules unfairly erodes wolf protections, Stone said. "It really loosens up the criteria under which states could kill wolves," she said. "It gives great leverage to the states to interpret that as they see fit." The new rules will also allow hunting guides and others to kill wolves caught harassing dogs or stock animals on public land. Previously, only cattle or sheep owners whose animals were being harassed could legally shoot the predators. Outfitters who take clients, hunting dogs and horses into the northern Rocky Mountain backcountry said this move was long overdue. Last year, six dogs were killed by wolves in Idaho. "We support the additional flexibility for management of wolves, that will allow the public and outfitters to better protect their personal property," said Grant Simonds, director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. Ed Bangs, the Helena, Mont.-based federal wolf recovery coordinator for the lower 48 states, said expanding the rules shows an increased trust in states to manage their wolf populations so they'll never again approach numbers that would require federal protections. The more wolves, Bangs said, the more flexibility states need to manage them like other species of wildlife such as black bears and mountain lions.