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October 21, 2008 3:02 am

Legislators ponder wolves

Written by Tribune Staff

The Wyoming Legislature's Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Interim Committee met in Cody Thursday to discuss what Wyoming lawmakers should — or shouldn't — do about wolves.

On Friday, a similar hearing took place in Riverton.

Lawmakers and state officials are debating how to respond to U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's ruling to nix U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove wolves from the Endangered Species List.

In July, Malloy ruled in favor of 12 conservation groups and issued an injunction against delisting the gray wolf, saying that the federal government failed to ensure the animal's genetic exchange between packs in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Last week Malloy vacated the March delisting, thereby putting wolves back in endangered status.

But Fish and Wildlife plans to publish another delisting rule, possibly as early as January 2009.

Even so, Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg said the federal government likely will reject Wyoming's existing wolf plan.

Fish and Wildlife did approve Wyoming's 2007 wolf management plan, but must analyze the plan again because of the court ruling, said Steve Guertin, regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver.

Malloy was opposed to Wyoming's predator management area — roughly 90 percent of the state where wolves could be shot on sight.

Conservation groups brought the lawsuit, at least in part, because of the predator zone, fearing packs in Wyoming would be isolated from packs in Idaho and Montana and thus unable to exchange genes.

Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, has proposed eliminating the predator zone, transforming Wyoming's wolf-management plan to making the entire state a trophy-game area.

Gingery said Friday in Riverton that crafting a statute to make Wyoming an all-trophy game zone likely would be the most expedient means of getting Wyoming wolf management back into Wyoming hands.

Curt Bales, a rancher south of Cody, said Thursday the entire state should be trophy-game status, though he believes his ranching colleagues will disagree with him.

If Wyoming Game and Fish has the management reins, they can be flexible in wolf-harvest numbers. If packs are smaller, Bales said he believes there will be few stock lost to wolves.

The peak year for wolf depredations was 2006, with 161 confirmed stock losses. At the time, there were 175 wolves in the state, said Scott Talbott, assistant chief of wildlife of Game and Fish Wildlife Division. Today, that number is 188 wolves living outside national parks in Wyoming, with 40 confirmed stock kills so far this year.

Salzburg said Wyoming should be prepared for delisting next year.

Rep. Colin Simpson, R-Cody, said the soonest Wyoming could change wolf statutes would be February 2009.

Wyoming could change wolf management regulations, but Salzburg said it would be difficult for Fish and Wildlife to consider regulation changes, in light of the court's criticism of Wyoming's statutes.

Other options exist. Wyoming could do nothing — allow Fish and Wildlife to manage wolves in the state. That would save Wyoming $2.5 million biennially.

But if Wyoming does not have an approved wolf plan, the 10j rule does not apply, Salzburg said. That rule allows for the killing of wolves attacking live stock or large wild game animals.

Wyoming could amend its statutes and thus be in a stronger position when delisting comes around next year. Or state officials could pursue litigation, but that is time consuming and costly, with an uncertain outcome, Salzburg said.
Rep. Pat Childers, R-Cody, said Wyoming could create a statewide trophy zone with liberal harvest numbers.

Childers said Fish and Wildlife agreed with Wyoming's dual status statute.

He asked why service officials didn't have documentation saying dual status was legally defendable, Childers asked.
Guertin said the service believed it had adequate documentation, but the court did not.

Meeteetse rancher Allen Hogg said Wyoming should stick to its guns as long as possible to ensure there will be fewer federal restrictions on wolves.

“Hold your ground as long as you can,” Hogg said.

Brian Sybert, Cody representative of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said the coalition did not oppose delisting. He said the most effective means of getting wolves back under Wyoming management is declaring the entire state a trophy game area.

Sybert said the purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to get an animal's population into recovery mode and then turn the animal over to states for management.

Dick Bryan, of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said the “shoot-on-sight” wording has spooked people in the east.
Bryan's organization is worried about moose populations, especially in an area where moose are relatively numerous.

“Please don't let wolves get in the Big Horns,” Bryan said.

Ken Hamilton, executive vice president of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, said the bureau opposed expanding the trophy area.

Hamilton said the service should have been able to justify Wyoming's wolf boundaries in court.

“This situation isn't going to end in anything but a court fight,” Hamilton said.