Wolves are making headlines again, or at least their champions and adversaries are.
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, and fellow congressmen from Wisconsin and Minnesota introduced a bill on Jan. 10 that would remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act list. The measure would also outlaw any lawsuits aimed at returning the animal to the Endangered Species list.
“Wyoming should be able to manage the gray wolf without outside interference,” Cheney, who took office on Jan. 3, said in a statement. “This bill will stop the ‘management by litigation’ culture that has done so much damage to our state.”
Similar attempts were made to delist gray wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes through provisions inserted into the 2015 budget bill and a 2016 energy bill, but neither rider passed Congress.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service previously determined the gray wolf populations in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region no longer required the level of protection required by the ESA, Cheney said.
Wolves were removed from the list in Wyoming for a couple of years, but a U.S. District Court rejected Wyoming’s wolf management plan and restored federal protections in 2014. Cheney’s bill comes as the State of Wyoming waits to hear whether the U.S. Court of Appeals will overturn that 2014 decision.
Timothy Preso, Earthjustice managing attorney in Bozeman, Montana, argued on behalf of the Defenders of Wildlife and asked the appeals court to uphold the lower court’s decision at a September hearing.
Preso said enacting Cheney’s wolf bill would be a free pass from Congress, granting Wyoming wolf management without changes to its plan.
Wyoming would be managing the species now if the predator zone wasn’t part of its plan, said Chris Colligan, Greater Yellowstone Coalition wildlife program coordinator in Jackson. The proposed predator zone covers 85 percent of the state — basically everything except the northwest corner — and allows wolves to be shot on sight.
While controversial, the predator zone was not the reason that U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson struck down Wyoming’s plan in 2014; in fact, she actually affirmed that the zone was OK. What prompted the Washington, D.C., judge to strike down the plan was her finding that Wyoming’s promises to maintain a certain number of wolves were not legally binding.
U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., supports the new delisting bill, said Max D’Onofrio, Enzi’s press secretary.
“It was unfortunate that despite the excellent work by stakeholders to develop a state management plan for gray wolves in Wyoming, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to comply with the court’s decision to reinstate protections under the Endangered Species Act,” D’Onofrio said.
He added that, “It is important that members of Congress work together to pass legislation that not only removes the endangered species listing but protects against additional judicial activism.”
Livestock growers, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and hunters also want wolves delisted, said Tim Hockhalter, who sits on the Park County Predator Management Advisory Board and is a Cody area outfitter.
“I think we need to hunt them,” Hockhalter said. “We need to trap them, too.”
Wyoming had wolf management and allowed hunting from September 2012 to September 2014, he noted.
“The wolf quota was very conservative,” Hockhalter said.
Brian Nesvik, Game and Fish chief of wildlife in Cheyenne, said the state managed the animals well during that time.
“We have long held that wolves have been recovered for quite some time,” Nesvik said, adding, “The wolf population continues to do quite well.”
By the numbers
There were an estimated 382 wolves in Wyoming in 2015, according to the Wyoming Wolf Recovery 2015 annual report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Game and Fish, Wind River Indian Reservation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. The count was 333 in 2014.
In 2015 wolves killed 134 head of livestock in Wyoming, according to the report. In 2014 they killed 62 head.
Some wolves are more prone to killing livestock, Nesvik said. More livestock are killed when the wolf population is higher.
The 2016 total should be completed in the next month, said Tyler Abbott, Fish and Wildlife deputy field supervisor for Wyoming Ecological Services field office in Cheyenne. “We’re in the process of compiling the data right now.”
Pass or fail
Preso said it is unknown whether Cheney’s bill will pass.
The State of Wyoming is allowing the interests of a few to trump the interests of many, Preso said. With the predator zone covering 85 percent of the state, that leaves the remaining 15 percent for wolf management to maintain 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs. To date, the state has not reconsidered the predator zone designation.
Wyoming’s wolf management plan was designed with the state’s people and livestock industry in mind, Nesvik said.
“We strongly believe that wolf management belongs in the hands of the state,” he said.
Preso said that people are legally hunting wolves in Montana because it has no predator zone.
He said he recognizes that Game and Fish employees are competent wildlife managers, but said the department has no jurisdiction in the predator zone.
Delisting wolves in Wyoming would have minimal impact on Yellowstone wolves as long as hunting and management are regulated, said Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Project leader.
In 2009, four wolves that lived mostly in Yellowstone were legally harvested just north of the park in Montana, according to a 2015 National Park Service paper. At the time, the four animals constituted 3 percent of the park’s 137 wolves. That had no impact on population growth, but the animals were from the Cottonwood Creek pack and the surviving six members of the pack were never seen again.
In 2012, 12 wolves that primarily lived within Yellowstone were harvested in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, according to the report. “These wolves constituted 12 percent of the 98 wolves living primarily in YNP, but their removal had little to no apparent effect on the population growth rate.”
President-elect Donald Trump has picked Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., as his interior secretary. Being from Montana, Zinke is familiar with Wyoming’s wolves, Hockhalter said. “He knows what’s going on.”
Trump will update the ESA and push to get more animals off the list, Hockhalter said. “You’re going to see something happen.”
Hunting is simply a management tool, Hockhalter said. And, wolves are a canny animal, they’re not easy to harvest.
“If we just get them delisted, that’s a start,” Hockhalter said.
Few people in this country can enjoy viewing wildlife like bears, elk, wolves, etc., which Earthjustice does not take for granted, Preso said. “For many people it’s a treasure.”
The predator zone needs to go, he said. “We’re going to stand firm with what everybody cares about.”