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Rule delisting wolves in Idaho, Montana imminent?

BOISE, Idaho -- A rule to lift federal Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in most of Idaho and Montana but not Wyoming could be made public by winter, state and federal officials say.

The ruling would help clear the way for controlled hunts of the predators that have thrived in the northern Rocky Mountains since their 1995 reintroduction.

Wyoming, unlike Montana and Idaho, hasn't won approval for its management plan. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't agree its plan is adequate to keep wolves from going extinct again.

Under the ESA, all three states normally would have to have such plans, before protections are lifted.

Still, there's concern Wyoming's plan will be tied up in court for years.

As a result, the U.S. Interior Department, led by Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, is "seriously considering" alternatives suggested last year by Kempthorne while he was Idaho governor, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, "that would reward states that are doing good jobs at management and have plans in place," said Ed Bangs, Fish and Wildlife's gray wolf recovery coordinator in Helena, Mont.

"We can only wait so long," Bangs said. "It's time to move forward. We think a viable option could be delisting by state."

The rule may also include eastern Oregon and Washington and a small part of northern Utah, Bangs said, though wolves haven't settled there.

Once a rule is introduced, it would take months for public comment -- or potential lawsuits.

Protections wouldn't be lifted on wolves north of U.S. Interstate 90 in Idaho and Montana, which are listed as endangered.

Fish and Wildlife estimates gray wolves in the northern Rockies now number more than 900, with 600 wolves in central Idaho, up from just 35 introduced in 1995 and 1996. Montana has about 170, and Wyoming has about 250.

As a plan to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana takes shape, wolf advocates are concerned.

"In the past, Fish and Wildlife has rejected the idea (of delisting by state), because at that point, it did not match the intention of the Endangered Species Act," said Suzanne Stone, a spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife, which has reimbursed ranchers $700,000 for wolf-related livestock losses over 10 years.

"Our question will be, if it wasn't legal earlier, why is it legal now?" she said.

Her group would oppose a delisting area that includes Oregon, Washington and Utah until there are actually wolves there -- along with management plans to protect them.

Stone also fears once Idaho assumes control, the state could eliminate many of its 59 existing packs, because it's only required to manage for 15 packs.

In July, Fish and Wildlife reiterated it can't lift protections from Wyoming wolves until the state sets firm limits on how many can be killed and agrees to a minimum population.

The state responded in August by saying it would sue.

Meanwhile, calls for delisting are growing stronger in Idaho, where ranchers fear wolves are killing their livestock, hunters complain the predators hurt big game populations of elk and deer, and Gov. Jim Risch calls wolves a "nuisance."

This week, a rancher near the Hells Canyon National Recreation area said he suspects wolves have killed as many as 158 of his sheep in the last week.

Jeff Allen, policy adviser for the Idaho Office of Species Conservation in Boise, said he "wouldn't be surprised to see a (proposed federal) rule shortly."

"Personally, I'm as optimistic as I've been in years, about the potential for delisting," Allen said, adding Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall told Idaho and Montana recently that he's showing proposals to the U.S. Department of Justice, "to get its solicitors comfortable with the notion of delisting by state."

In the northern Midwest, Fish and Wildlife is also hoping finalize a rule soon to remove federal protections from wolves in habitat spanning Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

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Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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