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Endangered Wolves Wyoming

A gray wolf resting in tall grass.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

HELENA — Two environmental groups who don't want to settle the lawsuit over the delisting of gray wolves in Montana and Idaho say they don't understand how their former partners in the federal court case can now support state wolf management plans that they previously found so inadequate.

A court-ordered response from what's being called "the nonsettling parties" that was filed this week by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Clearwater lays out their concerns with the proposed settlement that will come before U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy on Thursday in Missoula.

Mike Garrity, the Alliance's executive director, said nothing substantial has changed with wolf management since the case was filed by 14 environmental groups in 2009. The groups claimed that the Department of Interior was wrong when it decided wolves could be considered a "recovered" species no longer facing extinction in Montana and Idaho, but not in Wyoming.

The split among states "failed to ensure that the northern Rockies wolf population exhibits genetic connectivity essential to its survival, and will allow the wolf population in Idaho and Montana to decline dramatically ..." the groups stated in the lawsuit.

Molloy ruled in the groups' favor last August on that point, but under a settlement agreement filed with the court this week, 10 of the environmental groups, known now as "the settling parties" said the differing statuses among the three states would be retained, at least until Wyoming could come up with a plan to manage wolves that is approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The nonsettling parties allege in the court documents filed Tuesday that the only new twists in the ongoing saga are the bills in Congress that could permanently remove wolves from Endangered Species Act protections in the northern Rockies. He said the fear of those potential acts of Congress is the real motivation behind the settlement proposal.

"Essentially, what has changed is they couldn't take the heat," Garrity said.

Mike Clark, executive director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition -- one of the larger of the 10 groups pushing for the settlement -- readily agreed with that, saying the potential for congressional action to change the Endangered Species Act prompted everyone to take a closer look at settling the case.

"I live in the real world that says when Congress talks to you, you better pay attention," Clark said. "Congress can step into, at any time, any issue and do what it wants. That's our reality. And certainly, Congress is taking an interest in this.

"The Endangered Species Act has been in place for 30 years, and it's the most important act for making sure a species doesn't disappear. It would be a terrible precedent (if Congress could remove any animal from the list) and if we can avoid that, we better."

But he said the situation changed in other ways during the past two years.

One of the main issues now is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a branch of the Interior Department that oversees endangered species, wanted to resolve the case. The federal agency also has agreed to maintain a key role in monitoring and managing what happens with wolves over time once they're considered recovered, and they'll convene a panel of experts to look into their recovery.

However, he had a hard time, when pressed, to explain the difference over when they filed the lawsuit in June 2009, saying the 2009 delisting was unlawful because it removed federal protection for wolves in Montana and Idaho while retaining the listed status in Wyoming.

Clark said that under the settlement, the USFWS now says it will not "try to individually single out particular states and will manage wolves as a regional population" -- which is something Garrity said the federal agency has done for years.

According to Clark, under the settlement the USFWS would "maintain a vital role in the management of wolves and not allow states to do what they want" -- but states already must have a management plan approved by the USFWS before they take over the key role, and the federal agency always has the authority to take over that management if the states don't abide by the plans.

"But it wasn't clear, the way things were going with both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, that the service had a firm commitment in managing those wolves," Clark said.

Clark said he believes the agreement will put additional pressure on Wyoming to come up with a wolf management plan, even though both the federal government, as well Montana and Idaho officials, have long pushed Wyoming to develop its own plan in order to get wolves delisted in all three states.

"Part of the problem in Wyoming is their Legislature wrote a detailed piece of legislation that maintains and manages wolves on an almost daily basis, and that's not acceptable to us or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," he said. "Until the Legislature changes, the federal government will continue to manage wolves there. But hopefully, Wyoming will see Idaho and Montana can manage wolves, and the residents of Wyoming will want to do that, too."

At Thursday's hearing, Molloy is being asked if he will consider granting an order that partially "stays" his August ruling. That means the wolves could be delisted in Montana and Wyoming and opens up the possibility of a hunting season in the two states as part of their management plans.

In a brief also filed on Tuesday, the Humane Society of the United States wrote that it is opposed to the settlement because it "does not support the immediate killing of wolves" and the delisting shouldn't be implemented.

Molloy noted in an order filed Monday that he believes a "substantial issue" has been raised, but hasn't made any determination on the merits of the motion to settle the case.

After being hunted, trapped and poisoned to near-extirpation in the early 1900s, wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone first in 1994 and also have migrated south from Canada. The northern Rockies -- mainly Idaho, Montana and Wyoming -- now are home to about 1,650 gray wolves, which is more than five times the previously set federal benchmark of 300 wolves for them to be considered a recovered species and removed from federal protection.

However, some environmental groups believe they need anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 wolves on the landscape, including in Oregon, Washington and Utah, to ensure genetic diversity.

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