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Northern Rocky Mountains gray wolf
The Billings Gazette, October 18, 2010

Idaho won't manage wolves under Endangered Species Act
By The Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — After talks with the federal government over a public wolf hunt collapsed, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter ordered Idaho wildlife managers Monday to relinquish their duty to arrest poachers or to even investigate when wolves are killed illegally.

Otter rejected the wolf management Idaho has conducted for years as the federal government's "designated agent" after a federal judge in Montana returned wolves to Endangered Species Act protections earlier this year.

This means Idaho Department of Fish and Game managers will no longer perform statewide monitoring for wolves, conduct investigations into illegal killings, provide law enforcement when wolves are poached or participate in a program that responds to livestock depredations.

With U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's ruling in August, Idaho and Montana have had to cancel public hunts. That's especially irked Otter, who contends the first legal harvest that started in 2009 and ended earlier this year demonstrated that states could manage wolves responsibly.

In an angry letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Republican governor said withdrawing from wolf management will keep Idaho hunters and their money from subsidizing the federal program. Without the possibility of a hunt, there's no incentive for Idaho to manage wolves now, Otter aides said.

"Frustration, mostly," Otter told reporters late Monday, on what led to his decision. "We're no longer going to spend any sportsmen's dollars in Idaho to enforce the Endangered Species Act as it relates to the experimental project of wolves."

Otter also accused the federal government of foisting wolves upon Idaho — he calls them "your wolves" — and promised to quickly submit plans asking for special permission to kill dozens of wolves to protect big game herds.

A spokeswoman for Salazar said the Interior Department would continue to work with states but the court ruling in August restoring protections left its options limited.

"We cannot currently authorize the resumption of sport hunting of wolves," said Kendra Barkoff. "Up to this point, we appreciate the states of Idaho and Montana who have been working responsibly to manage wolves; nonetheless, we must follow the court's ruling."

It's unclear just how Idaho wolves will be managed now. Between 1995 and 2005, the Nez Perce Tribe in north-central Idaho managed the predators, before the state stepped in. But the tribe said Otter didn't approach them before pulling out.

"We just hope the state will come back to the table," said Brooklyn Baptiste, vice chairman for the Nez Perce Tribe. "Ultimatums are really hard to take back, especially in an atmosphere of re-election."

Keith Allred, Otter's Democratic rival in the Nov. 2 gubernatorial race, said the governor was handing over an issue to the federal government that rightfully belongs in Idaho's hands.

"Butch Otter just gave away more state power to the federal government," said Allred. "We need to be asserting our sovereignty, not giving it away."

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said his state's approach has not changed, despite Idaho's move.

"We continue to look for ways to get management responsibilities returned to the state of Montana," Aasheim said.

Idaho has about 850 wolves and insists the species is recovered in the northern Rocky Mountains after its reintroduction to the region in the mid-1990s.

Molloy in Missoula restored Endangered Species Act protections following a lawsuit from environmentalists who argued Idaho and Montana wolves could not be under state control while Wyoming wolves remained under federal control.

Douglas Honnold, lead attorney with Earthjustice who represented the environmental groups, said Otter's decision goes in the wrong direction.

"Instead of throwing up their hands and walking away from the wolf issue, Idaho should be getting to work on a wolf management plan that complies with the law," Honnold said from his offices in Bozeman, Mont.

Otter's advisers had been negotiating with Salazar and other federal officials since September on a plan for Idaho to continue to manage wolves within its borders.

Among other things, Otter wanted to hold a public hunt and insisted on provisions giving state managers more power to kill wolves that prey on elk, moose or deer in areas where the state says big game herds are suffering.

"Today I join many Idahoans in questioning whether there is any benefit to being a designated agent without the flexibility of a public hunt," Otter said, adding he's doubtful continuing as designated agent would speed up the delisting process.

Republican U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo separately have introduced a bill that aims to exempt wolves in Idaho from federal protections that were restored by Molloy's order.

Copyright 2010 The Billings Gazette.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton