CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday he's optimistic the federal government can come to agreement with the state of Wyoming on how to lift federal protections for wolves in the state — a dispute that has sparked years of bitter litigation.
Speaking at a Cheyenne high school with Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Salazar said he planned to continue talks with Mead on how to transfer wolf management responsibility to the state. Many Wyoming ranchers and hunters have said wolves kill too many livestock and game animals.
"I'm hopeful that how we move forward on the wolf issue will help us get beyond the litigation," Salazar said. "I'd rather focus on other issues that are important to conservationists — the creation of jobs through conservation, a whole host of other issues. I don't know if we'll be able to do that. I'm more optimistic today than I've frankly have ever been that we'll be able to find a resolution."
A series of legal challenges from conservation groups has stymied efforts in recent years to end Endangered Species Act protections for the wolf population in Wyoming and neighboring states.
The Obama administration last week announced a legal settlement with environmental groups that could end federal management of wolves in Idaho and Montana. Yet the problem of how to end federal wolf management in Wyoming remains a thorny issue, largely because of the state's wolf management plan.
The Wyoming plan, enshrined in state law, specifies wolves should be managed as trophy game animals in the northwestern corner of the state, generally bordering Yellowstone National Park. The plan calls for classifying them as predators that could be shot on sight everywhere else.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency under Salazar's control, recently announced it wouldn't appeal a ruling by a federal judge in Wyoming who said the federal agency was wrong to reject Wyoming's plan without providing a detailed analysis.
Yet Salazar said Tuesday he couldn't say whether the federal government ultimately could accept any Wyoming plan that continues the "dual-classification" system of ranking wolves both as protected trophy game animals and unprotected predators depending on their location.
"I want the Endangered Species Act to be recognized as having been successful here with respect to the wolf," Salazar said. "The wolf exists today in large part because of the Endangered Species Act was put into place. The wolf is now recovered.
"And so it is our hope that once you have the recovery of the wolf, that it can be returned back to the management of a wildlife species back to the state of Wyoming. That's the program that we're in," Salazar said. "The specifics of how we ultimately get there, that's something that we're still working on in our dialogue."
Since their reintroduction in Yellowstone and other areas in the mid-1990s, the wolf population in the Northern Rockies has rebounded up to more than 1,600 animals, federal officials say.
Mead said the federal government's original plan was to have only 150 wolves in the state while the population in Wyoming now stands at roughly 340.
Mead said he believes it's worth the effort to try to resolve the wolf issue with Salazar. Mead said he hopes Congress ultimately will accept the state's management plan and call for an end to litigation on the issue.
"The number continues to go up every year we don't have some sort of resolution," Mead said of the Wyoming wolf population.
Mead said the Wyoming Legislature would have to approve any change in the state's wolf management plan. He said he believes Wyoming should retain its dual-classification system that designates wolves in some areas as unprotected predators.