BOISE, Idaho — Two conservation groups asked the Biden administration to reinstate a federal monitoring program to oversee the management of gray wolves in Idaho and Montana following changes in wolf hunting laws in the two states intended to drastically reduce wolf numbers.
The Idaho Conservation League and the Endangered Species Coalition also on Wednesday urged federal officials to do a status review that could lead to relisting wolves under the Endangered Species Act.
Both states’ management of wolves was under federal oversight for five years after wolves were delisted about a decade ago. The groups said that oversight needs to be reinstated “because the previous five-year monitoring period has been demonstrated to be inadequate for ensuring long-term state commitments to a recovered gray wolf population.”
The groups in the letter, sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy director, want federal oversight of Idaho and Montana wolf management plans for at least 10 years.
As for the status review to relist wolves, the groups said the changes in wolf hunting laws pose such a serious threat to wolf populations that they trigger a status review requirement as outlined in a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service document involving the states' responsibilities in wolf management.
"These legislative changes constitute a stark departure from the states' wolf management plans that (Fish and Wildlife) approved more than a decade ago," the groups wrote in the petition.
Fish and Wildlife is supposed to respond within 90 days.
That 2009 document outlines three scenarios that could lead Fish and Wildlife to initiate a status review. One of them is “if a change in state law or management objectives would significantly increase the threat to the wolf population.”
The other two scenarios involve population numbers. The first is if either state, plus Wyoming, see wolf populations fall below 10 breeding pairs or 100 wolves at the end of the year.
The second is if any of those three states see wolf populations fall below 15 breeding pairs or 150 wolves for three consecutive years.
In May, Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little signed a measure lawmakers said could lead to killing 90% of the state’s 1,500 wolves through expanded trapping and hunting. It took effect July 1.
Lawmakers pushing the measure, backed by trappers and the powerful ranching sector but heavily criticized by environmental advocates, stated explicitly during debates in a Senate committee and on the Senate floor that the state can cut the number of wolves to 150 before federal authorities would take over management.
They said reducing the wolf population would reduce attacks on livestock and boost deer and elk herds.
A primary change in wolf hunting in Idaho allows the state to hire private contractors to kill wolves and provides more money for state officials to hire the contractors. The law also expands killing methods to include trapping and snaring wolves on a single hunting tag, using night-vision equipment, chasing wolves on snowmobiles and ATVs and shooting them from helicopters. It also authorizes year-round wolf trapping on private property.
In Montana, state wildlife authorities earlier this month approved a statewide harvest quota of 450 wolves, about 40% of the state’s wolf population. Methods for killing wolves that were previously outlawed can now be used. Those include snaring, baiting and night hunting. Trapping seasons have also been expanded.
On a related front, the Center for Biological Diversity in May asked Fish and Wildlife for an emergency relisting of gray wolves in Idaho and adjacent states.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game on Monday responded on that subject with a letter to Haaland stating that “despite headlines to the contrary, 2021 Idaho legislative changes do NOT in fact call for killing 90% of Idaho’s wolves or for wolf eradication.”
Fish and Game also said the challenges of pursuing wolves in Idaho's extensive and rugged backcountry combined with wolves' ability to reproduce make killing 90% of the state's wolves under the new laws “not a practical reality.”
Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and others in July petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore federal protections for gray wolves throughout the U.S. West following the new hunting laws in Idaho and Montana.
Currently, all wolf populations in the lower 48 states, except for Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico that number about 185, are delisted following a decision in October by the Trump administration that the Biden administration is backing.
A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit challenging that decision in federal court.
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