An agreement reached by officials from the Interior Department and the state of Wyoming, if enacted, would make Yellowstone National Park a sanctuary for wolves. Most elsewhere in the state wolves could be shot on sight under its guidelines.
The agreement, announced Wednesday, was immediately criticized by Defenders of Wildlife officials, who called it "completely unjustified," and questioned by a member of Congress.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, however, maintained the agreement would ensure "the long-term conservation of gray wolves" in Wyoming. Under the plan, the state would commit to maintaining a minimum population of at least 100 wolves outside the parks.
"This is far from the end of this process, but I think we have come up with something that fits with Wyoming’s values and economy,” Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead said in a prepared statement. “For years ranchers and sheep producers have been asked to sacrifice and they have. We have lost significant numbers of elk and moose, and we have not had a say in the management of an animal inside Wyoming. It is time for that to change and I appreciate Secretary Salazar and the US Fish and Wildlife Service working with us. Wolves are recovered in Wyoming; let’s get them off the Endangered Species List.”
In his own release, Secretary Salazar said the state's revised plan -- which requires the state Legislature's approval -- would have to ensure "a healthy wolf population at or above the Service’s recovery goals, provide for genetic connectivity with other wolf subpopulations in the Northern Rockies, and otherwise ensure that gray wolves in Wyoming are managed so that they will not need to be returned to the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife."
Once Wyoming revises its management plan for wolves, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service would then propose a rule to allow for the species to be removed from the Endangered Species list. That rule would be open for public comment.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the agreement with Wyoming officials "enables us to recognize the successful recovery of the gray wolf across the Northern Rocky Mountains. This success is a testament to years of hard work by the states, tribes, landowners and our other conservation partners, all of whom have enabled us to get where we are today."
“Responsible management by the state wildlife professionals of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department– which includes regulated, limited trophy game hunts in certain areas similar to those conducted for other game species like elk and mountain lions – will ensure the long-term conservation of this population of wolves," he added.
But at Defenders, Suzanne Stone, the organization's Northern Rockies representative, said "(A)llowing wolves to be shot on sight across the vast majority of Wyoming is completely unjustified."
"It was this attitude that led wolves to become endangered in the first place. Wolves are an essential part of healthy ecosystems in the region and should be treated as such," she added. “Wyoming has settled on the indiscriminate shooting of wolves as the primary management tool in the state, which is a huge step backwards. Instead, the state should be working with all stakeholders to promote tolerance and prevent conflict by implementing nonlethal, proactive management tools."
In Washington, U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, dispatched a letter to Interior Secretary Salazar questioning the agreement.
"The backbone of the Endangered Species Act has always been its commitment to use science to protect species from extinction. Science, not politics, should ensure the conservation and management of the gray wolves in Wyoming, should they be delisted," wrote Rep. Markey.
The congressman's office added that, "(T)he agreement creates a 'dual-status' plan under which wolves in a small portion of northwest Wyoming would be considered 'trophy game,' requiring a license to be hunted. Wolves outside of this area would be considered predators and could be shot on sight without a license. It is currently unclear if the 'flex-line,' which would determine the seasonal 'trophy game' area, has been established using the best-available science."
According to Defenders, at last count there was a population of 246 wolves outside of Yellowstone, and so under the agreement nearly 150 -- nearly 60 percent -- could be killed. At the same time, the 2010 Fish and Wildlife census of wolves in Yellowstone showed just 97 animals inside the park.
During 2010 there were 26 confirmed wolf kills of cattle in Wyoming, and 33 confirmed kills of sheep, according to the FWS records.
Up until September 2010, Defenders had compensated ranchers who could prove wolves killed their livestock. During the 23-year life of the program the organization paid out more than $1.4 million. Defenders ended its program when a similar federal program came about.
An interesting aside to the agreement announced Wednesday is that U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, recently amended the Interior Department's funding bill to block legal challenges to any delisting decisions made by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The bill has not yet been acted upon by the Senate.
Another interesting development is that Teton County (Wyoming) officials plan to ask Gov. Mead to see that wolves in their county, which embraces Grand Teton National Park, are not hunted as predators under the agreement.