In January, Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced that the federal government will give Idaho and Montana more control over threatened gray wolves, declaring that the 10-year-old wolf reintroduction program had been a success that "exceeded all of our expectations."
The management shift, which results from a change to the Endangered Species Act's "10j" rule, will make it easier for ranchers in Montana and Idaho to kill wolves threatening livestock on private and public land. Previously, ranchers needed written authorization from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to kill wolves, and the wolves had to be caught in the act of attacking livestock. Under the rule change, ranchers in Idaho and Montana can now kill wolves without federal permission, simply for chasing livestock. The rule change also allows state wildlife officials, consulting with federal biologists, to kill wolves deemed to be reducing big game herds.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is pleased. "We have seen the [wolf] population increase significantly," said Kempthorne in a press conference. "We have seen tremendous impact by these wolf packs on deer and elk herds. We have situations of sport kill where a wolf pack will attack and kill young calves for sport."
David Gaillard of the Predator Conservation Alliance says the decision will allow a "test run" to see if state wolf management can work. "If it doesn't," he says, "management will revert back to the feds. In a way, this is a unique trial opportunity."
But other environmentalists say the changes go too far. "This completely eliminates the general protection of the Endangered Species Act for wolves," says Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife. "It will subject state officials to too much pressure from hunter lobbying groups to kill wolves."
The change in management has also provoked a stormy response from the Nez Perce Tribe. The tribe has cooperated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in managing wolves since that agency reintroduced the predators to the region in 1995. At the time, Idaho objected to wolf recovery, claiming a resurgence of wolves would devastate the ranching and outfitting businesses. But despite the decade of tribal cooperation, Norton's January decision does not promise the Nez Perce any role in wolf management ... and that may lead to a court battle.
The controversy comes as gray wolves appear to be thriving in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, with an estimated total population of 700 animals, about 420 of them in Idaho. Federal officials say this healthy population no longer needs Endangered Species Act protection.
Before gray wolves can be removed from the endangered species list, however, each state must produce an acceptable management plan, says Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. Idaho and Montana have done this, but Wyoming's plan has failed to clear the bar, which means de-listing is on hold indefinitely.
In the interim, the revision of the "10j" rule allows the federal government to give Idaho and Montana more control over wolf management while still keeping the wolf under Endangered Species Act protection.
"We should be de-listing, but we can't," says Bangs. "With this rule, we're saying it would be good to have the states' help. So let's make the rules more flexible."
Under the change, however, the Nez Perce Tribe's management role will be limited to its approximately 770,000-acre reservation in north central Idaho. That is a fraction of the authority the tribe enjoyed in managing wolves throughout the state since reintroduction. The Nez Perce have submitted a management plan and asked the government for permission to manage wolves along with the state, but Norton's office has not yet approved the plan and has no deadline for doing so, says Craig Manson, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks in the Department of Interior.
The Nez Perce, like the state, would permit the killing of problem wolves. However, the tribe emphasizes using non-lethal measures, such as stringing flags around livestock herds to scare wolves off, chasing wolves away with loud music or changing the time of year that livestock graze on public land to avoid the wolves' denning season.
The tribe also wants more wolves: Idaho's plan would maintain between 10 and 15 breeding pairs in the state, while the Nez Perce proposal commits to at least 20.
"The tribe is really proud of the role it has played here, and they want continued responsibilities," says tribal attorney Marley Hochendoner. "The state is just getting up to speed."
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game, with more than 400 employees, says it will be more effective in wolf management than the tribe, which has 20 positions in its wildlife department, several of which are vacant. "[The Nez Perce] aren't equipped to do any of the management or the enforcement," says Fish and Game's Steve Nadeau.
A Legal Fight Looms
The question may end up in the courts. Both the 1855 treaty that created the Nez Perce Reservation and the Endangered Species Act require the federal government to consult with the tribe on wolf management, says Hochendoner. Moreover, the treaty guarantees tribal members the right to hunt and fish on open lands within their historic territory -- 13 million acres that encompass the rugged, mountainous terrain that comprises much of Idaho's national forests and wilderness.
Once wolves are de-listed, the tribe wants to be able to hunt them, says Hochendoner, but "to have a right and not a resource to hunt essentially diminishes that right." A similar argument won Northwest tribes broad control over salmon fisheries in 1974.
Hochendoner says she and her legal team plan to review the revised 10j rule. The tribe's executive committee will decide whether to fight in court for a management role, she says.
"The tribes have spent the last 10 years recovering the species," Hochendoner says. "They recognize the need to control wolves, but at the same time, there shouldn't be an open-ended plan that could be subject to abuse."