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Northern Rocky Mountains gray wolf
Missoulian, August 20, 2009

Government to reconsider endangered status
By Rob Chaney

A coalition of wolf advocates filed a request to block wolf hunting seasons in Idaho and Montana on Thursday afternoon in Missoula's federal district court.

"Because Idaho Fish and Game delayed its decision on setting the mortality level until the last minute, we're filing for injunctive relief at the last moment," said EarthJustice attorney Jenny Harbine. "It could be that Idaho would start (its wolf hunting season) before we're able to get a remedy."

The coalition is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to reverse the federal agency's decision removing the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act in Montana and Idaho. Both states set up 2009 hunting seasons for wolves, with Idaho's hunt beginning Sept. 1 in some regions. The earliest part of Montana's season will start Sept. 15.

"We're very concerned quotas for specific areas in Idaho are quite high and the season is fairly extensive," said Center for Biological Diversity spokesman Michael Robinson, one of the coalition members. "It's not only the sheer reduction of wolves, but that it will curtail the ability of wolves to disperse and set up new territories. The hunting season will further isolate the Yellowstone population."

The injunction request asks that wolves be put back on endangered species status while the larger lawsuit is settled. To win that, the wolf advocates must show two things: That they are likely to win the larger case and that allowing a hunt in the meantime would do irreparable harm to the wolf population.

Robinson said he believed Fish and Wildlife Service research was inadequate and "picked numbers out of the air" to determine what a viable wolf population should be. They want to see a more comprehensive study that includes the wolves' ability to move from stronghold to stronghold so they can increase genetic diversity.

Fish and Wildlife Service wolf coordinator Ed Bangs said on Thursday the federal research actually does provide that level of detail.

"We went to extensive peer review of our numbers," Bangs said. "And the bottom line of consensus was a wolf population that never went below 30 breeding pairs and 300 individuals and was equally distributed would never disappear."

Bangs said the wolf recovery plan has more complex biology than the numbers imply. A "breeding pair" is not just two wolves. It's a functioning pack of at least 14 wolves, including two surviving pups of the year. Wolf packs are typically led by an alpha female, which is the only member that produces a litter of pups in a year.

There are more requirements beyond that. Idaho alone exceeds the 300 individual/30 breeding pair mark. But unless its wolves showed they could stay above that mark for three consecutive years, and could intermingle with populations in Montana and Wyoming, Bangs said the recovery goal would not be met.

As it stands now, the three-state area has a population of nearly 1,600 wolves and 100 breeding pairs at the end of 2008, plus an estimated 500 to 700 new wolf pups this summer.

"Are they going to be threatened or endangered at those numbers?" Bangs asked. "The answer is no."

While both Idaho and Montana developed rules for their respective wolf hunts earlier this summer, Idaho wildlife officials didn't release their quota until Monday. Their season will let hunters kill up to 220 wolves, with licenses going on sale Monday. The season in wilderness areas along Idaho' eastern border would run from Sept. 1 to March 31. Other parts of the state would have a season of Sept. 15-Dec. 31.

In July, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners set a quota of 75 wolves for hunting. Montana's season will start Sept. 15 in four backcountry wilderness areas, with a general season matching the big-game calendar of Oct. 25-Nov. 29.

Wyoming's wolves were kept on the Endangered Species List because of court objections to the state's management and hunting plans.

U.S. District Judge Don Molloy is hearing the case. If he grants the injunction, both states might have to refund hunters' licenses and stop the hunts.

© Copyright 2009, missoulian.com

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton