Montana wildlife officials praised Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar's announcement today that affirmed the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in January to remove gray wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species in Montana, Idaho, and parts of Utah, Washington, Oregon.
Wolves in western Great Lakes will also be delisted, but wolves will remain a protected species in Wyoming, Salazar said.
Wolf conservation and management in Montana will become the full responsibility of the state when the decision takes effect 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register, which is expected within a few weeks.
"This is what we worked for," said Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "We're pleased the new administration agrees that Montana has done its part to ensure that the wolves are established and secure in this part of the Northern Rockies. Now it's time for the state to take over management of this wildlife species."
USFWS originally announced the decision to delist the wolf in January, but the new administration decided to review the decision as part of an overall, government-wide regulatory review when it came into office.
Federal officials said the USFWS decided to delist the wolf in Idaho and Montana because they have approved state wolf management plans and solid programs in place that will ensure the conservation of the species in the future. At the same time, USFWS determined wolves in Wyoming would still be listed under the Endangered Species Act because Wyoming’s current state law and wolf management plan are not sufficient to conserve its portion of northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.
When delisting takes effect, the line separating Montana into the northern Endangered Area and the southern Experimental Area will no longer exist. Upon delisting, wolves throughout Montana will become reclassified under state law as a species in need of management, which also offers wolves legal protection much like other managed wildlife.
With delisting, the flexibility to protect livestock and domestic dogs is provided in Montana law. Similar to lions and black bears, a wolf seen actively biting, wounding, chasing, harassing, or attacking livestock or domestic dogs could be killed. Such incidents must be reported to FWP in 72 hours.
The transition, however, may face court challenges. Several groups say they will closely scrutinize the latest federal delisting decision and may renew legal challenges to block it.
"We belive this decision is on solid biological and legal footing, " Maurier said. "If challenged, FWP will defend the delisting decision."
Legal challenges could affect the sale of hunting licenses for a 2009 wolf-hunting season previously adopted by Montana's FWP Commission. Officials said none would be offered for sale until Montana is confident a wolf-hunting season could occur.
Nevertheless, the recovery of the wolf in the northern Rockies remains one of the fastest endangered species comebacks on record. In the mid 1990s, to hasten the overall pace of wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, 66 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains was set at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs—successfully reproducing wolf packs—and a minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years and well distributed throughout the recovery area. The goal was achieved in 2002, and the wolf population has increased every year since.
The northern Rockies "metapopulation" is comprised of wolf populations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. About 1,600 wolves, with about 95 breeding pairs, live in the region, where wolves can travel about freely to join existing packs or form new packs. This, combined with wolf populations in Canada and Alaska, assures genetic diversity.
About 420 wolves inhabited Montana, in 73 packs and 39 breeding pairs at the end of 2007, Maurier said. The population is expected to increase slightly when 2008 minimum estimates are finalized.
FWP has led wolf management under the federal guidelines since 2004. Delisting allows Montana to manage wolves in a manner similar to how bears, mountain lions and other wildlife species are managed, guided by state management plans, administrative rules, and laws.
To learn more about Montana’s wolf population, visit FWP online at fwp.mt.gov. Click Montana Wolves.