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Groups ask feds for emergency re-listing of wolves after new Montana, Idaho laws

HELENA (MTFP)-A handful of environmental groups are seeking the emergency re-listing of Northern Rockies gray wolves after lawmakers in Montana and Idaho passed several new laws aimed at aggressively reducing their numbers.

In a petition filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States and Sierra Club argue that decades of progress toward wolf recovery will be lost if the agency doesn’t intervene by restoring federal protections to the animals under the Endangered Species Act.

“It is crucial to the long-term and sustainable recovery of gray wolves, and to the integrity of the ESA and our nation’s interests in protecting against the loss of vulnerable species, that the Service show leadership in response to the horrific legislation passed in Idaho and Montana,” the petition reads. “These state laws, which include payments to wolf hunters and trappers to cover their expenses, hearken back to government-funded bounty systems that contributed substantially to pushing gray wolves to the edge of extinction nationwide over a century ago.”

Laws passed in Idaho and Montana “seriously endanger wolf populations in the West,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Andrea Zaccardi in a press release about the petition. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should immediately return Endangered Species Act protections to these wolves to halt the impending statewide slaughters before it’s too late.”

The petition highlights Idaho’s Senate Bill 1211 and several measures passed in Montana. SB 1211 removes bag limits on wolves for Idaho hunters, allows for hunting at night and with ATVs and snowmobiles, and legalizes year-round wolf trapping on private land. SB 1211 also allows the state to hire contractors to kill wolves. Since the bill authorizes “any method utilized for the take of any wild canine in Idaho” for use on wolves, shooting wolves from a helicopter is also now legal

The Montana bills referenced in the petition expand the wolf trapping season, legalize neck snares, remove bag limits on wolves, and allow for hunting with bait and at night on private property. They also allow for “the reimbursement for receipts of costs incurred related to the hunting or trapping of wolves” and write into statute a goal of reducing the wolf population “to a sustainable level, but not less than the number of wolves necessary to support at least 15 breeding pairs.”

Montana lawmaker Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, who sponsored the bills authorizing extension of the trapping season by four weeks and legalizing the use of neck snares, said it’s inappropriate for lawyers to weigh in on wildlife management, just as it would be for a retired wildlife biologist like him to expound on legal issues. 

“As a wildlife biologist, when I see statement by attorneys (Andrea Zaccardi of the Center for Biological Diversity and Nicholas Arrivo of the Humane Society of the United States) stating that legislation passed will enable the slaughter of 85-90% of the wolves in Montana and Idaho, I shake my head and laugh. They are not qualified to make the erroneous statement that they make any more than I am qualified to practice law,” he said in an email to Montana Free Press.

Fielder said Montana has more than four times the number of wolves called for in the state’s wolf management plan and argues that opponents of the new laws don’t appreciate how difficult it is to hunt wolves given their large home ranges and tendency to be more active at night.

“They are extremely hard and time-consuming to hunt and trap and success rates are extremely low,” he said, adding that management tools like those he proposed in the bills he sponsored are necessary if the state wants to protect its deer, elk and moose populations.

Nick Gevock, Montana Wildlife Federation’s conservation director, said his organization hasn’t taken a position on the relisting petition, but he’s not surprised there is one. He added that the new Idaho and Montana laws run counter to the ethical, fair-chase hunting and trapping that should inform wildlife management. 

“Gunning them from helicopters and running them down with vehicles? It’s a disgrace,” he said, referencing Idaho’s SB 1211. 

In many areas of the state, elk numbers are higher than the target set by wildlife managers, Gevock pointed out. And lawmakers have little appreciation for factors other than wolves that impact hunting success rates, like the availability of habitat, he said. 

“There is no wolf apocalypse,” he said. “If you listen to these people, you’d think predation is the only factor driving ungulate numbers, and it’s not.”

According to 2020 data, elk numbers were hitting the targets set by wildlife managers in two of Montana’s seven regions, and were over objective for the other five regions. FWP estimates the state’s elk population exceeds 136,000 animals, and the agency would like to get that number closer to 92,000. 

Gevock notes that several of the Montana bills give the Fish and Wildlife Commission considerable discretion for implementation, so there will be more clarity about population impacts once the legislation that’s been signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte is codified into hunting regulations. The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission is set to meet June 24 and is expected to discuss the new laws at that meeting. Once the commission develops a proposal for wolf management, it will go up for public comment.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has also not taken a position on the petition. Agency employees answered lawmakers’ questions about population dynamics and existing hunting regulations during legislative hearings, but didn’t take a position on the bills sponsored by Fielder and his counterpart in the Senate, fellow Thompson Falls GOP lawmaker Bob Brown. 

“Our comment in general is we feel like we’ve worked really hard in Montana to put in place a framework around wolf management that’s adaptive when necessary, that provides opportunities for hunters and trappers to pursue wolves,” said FWP spokesperson Greg Lemon. “It provides lots of latitude for landowners to protect their property and their livestock, and it keeps wolves at a healthy population level on the landscape.”

Idaho Fish and Game did not return calls from MTFP seeking comment on the petition, but the Idaho Fish and Game Commission opposed SB 1211 out of concern that it removes wildlife management decisions from the commission and gives them to politicians.

Much of the conversation around wolf management centers on the numbers laid out in Montana’s Wolf Management Plan, which calls for maintaining a minimum of 150 wolves and 15 breedings pairs. Fielder cites those numbers as a population target to aim for, whereas Gevock says those figures define a trigger for intervention with more protective measures, not a goal.

USFWS, which is under the U.S. Department of Interior, has 90 days to respond to the petition. A number of outcomes are possible once the agency has reviewed it.

Zaccardi, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said USFWS could deny the petition, use its authority under the ESA to issue an emergency listing, or determine that the petition merits closer investigation and take up to a year to conduct further study and collect public comment.Since a USFWS director has not yet been named by President Joe Biden, the top acting official at the agency is its deputy director, Martha Williams, who served as the director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks from 2017 to 2020 under former Gov. Steve Bullock.

Williams is well-versed in the controversy surrounding wolves: she served as legal counsel to FWP from 1998 to 2011, when wolf reintroduction was a hot-button issue for the agency.