Montana inclined to keep wolf management

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Idaho’s move to end its cooperation with the federal government over wolf management may or may not have ramifications for Montana, a state that is not likely to follow the lead of its western neighbor.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter on Monday announced that his state would no longer act as the federal government’s “designated agent” in managing wolves. Idaho Fish and Game will no longer be involved with monitoring, investigating and providing law enforcement in response to illegal takings of wolves, duties it has performed under a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since 2006.

Montana has had a similar agreement since 2004 that is set to expire at the end of this year, and Montana will negotiate for continuing its role in wolf management, said Carolyn Sime, who heads wolf management efforts for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Our agency leadership has decided that ... it’s in the best interests of Montana in the long term to keep Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the ground,” she said from her Helena office.

The reason for that, simply put, is that Montana has considerable leverage and discretion in how to respond to wolves that are impacting wildlife and livestock.

“If we think an entire pack needs to be removed ... we’re the ones that still make that decision rather than the federal government,” Sime said. “Why would we give that up? It doesn’t make sense.”

As another example, she noted that Kent Laudon, the state biologist who monitors wolves in Northwest Montana, has several years of experience in talking with hunters, working with landowners and livestock growers and following wolf packs.

“He’s not a fed,” Sime said. “He’s a state guy.”

In Idaho, official wolf management will revert to the federal government and that state, presumably, will no longer receive federal funds for wolf management. Montana currently gets about $625,000 annually in federal funds that is mostly used to support on-the-ground wolf management. It does not cover all costs, however.

“Our legal team (involved with wolf litigation) is not covered by federal dollars,” Sime said, citing an example.

Sime said there may be some political pressure in Montana to do the same thing that Otter did. She already has received correspondence from one group decrying that Montana now stands alone in not having the “backbone to stand up to federal bullying.”

But Sime believes Montana is pushing against the feds and for state wolf management authority on multiple fronts. Montana is involved in an appeal of last summer’s federal court ruling that put wolves back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, effectively ending the state’s ability to run a regulated wolf hunt.

There are several bills that have been drafted in Congress to delist Montana and Idaho wolves, and those may advance, she said.

And there are renewed efforts to persuade Wyoming lawmakers to develop a wolf management plan that would pass muster with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Service. The main reason for the summer court ruling is that U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy determined that wolves in the Northern Rockies could not be delisted along state lines — the Montana and Idaho populations were delisted but not the Wyoming population because that state’s plan is considered deficient.

The long-term implications of Idaho bowing out of wolf management is that it might complicate a future move to delist wolves. If Idaho strays from its current wolf management plan, for instance, that could be an obstacle.

Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, characterized Gov. Otter’s action as “political showmanship” that will only make matters worse.

“Gov. Otter’s move will only delay attempts to move past the polarizing rhetoric to meet the needs of Idaho’s citizens,” Schlickeisen said. “Regardless, Defenders remains committed to finding a path forward that’s based on the best available science. We firmly believe that, with proper safeguards in place, wolves can once again be managed by the states.”

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com

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