by Carly Flandro, Chronicle Staff Writer
After years of legal gridlock, conservation groups and the U.S. Department of Interior Friday reached an agreement on gray wolf management that, if approved, would remove federal protection for the animals in Montana and Idaho.
The settlement comes amid mounting pressure for a solution to the wolves’ status. Congress is considering a proposal to amend the Endangered Species Act to strip wolves of their protection. And an annual report recently found at least 566 wolves in Montana and another 705 in Idaho — numbers biologists say constitute a recovered population.
But the settlement — touted by some and criticized by others — has created a rift between conservation groups.
If U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy approves the settlement, Idaho and Montana would regain authority over gray wolf management and could resume their wolf hunts. “For too long, management of wolves in this country has been caught up in controversy and litigation instead of rooted in science where it belongs,” Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes said Friday. “This proposed settlement provides a path forward to recognize the successful recovery of the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains and to return its management to states and tribes.”
The animals would remain on the endangered species list in Washington, Oregon and Utah, where wolf populations are not recovered, and in Wyoming, where federal biologists contend a management plan that would allow wolves to be shot on sight could lead to wolves becoming endangered again.
The settlement also calls for scientific monitoring of wolf populations across the region and, after three years, an independent scientific review by an expert advisory board.
The Obama administration removed federal protection for the gray wolf in Montana and Idaho in 2009, saying the animal had fully recovered and no longer warranted protection. Wolves in Wyoming, however, remained on the list, due that that state’s aggressive management plan.
Conservation groups then sued, demanding protections be reinstated.
Then came Molloy’s ruling last summer, which was based on his finding that the federal government could not use state lines to determine which wolves in a distinct population are endangered and which ones are not — effectively putting wolves in Montana and Idaho back under the federal protection.
The proposed settlement would reverse that decision once again.
Ten conservation groups — including Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council — agreed to the settlement. But four, including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, did not.
And on Friday, Michael Garrity, Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ executive director, said those that settled “couldn’t take the heat.”
Mike Clark, GYC’s executive director, said his group did feel pressure from legislators threatening to remove Endangered Species Act protections from all wolves.
“When you look at Congress barreling down your throat … you have to be pragmatic,” he said. The settlement is “a good compromise that gives everybody a framework for managing wolves over a period of the next five years.”
Mike Leahy, the Rocky Mountain region director for the Defenders of Wildlife, agreed, noting that the settlement calls for science-based management of the animals going forward.
“I think it is the best short- or long-term goal available for wolves right now,” he said.