CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Legislature has sent Gov. Matt Mead a bill to change the state's wolf-management law — a critical step toward ratifying the agreement the governor reached with the federal government last year over how to end Endangered Species Act protections for the animals.
However, uncertainty remains over possible legal challenges to Wyoming's wolf management plan. Many hunters and ranchers in the state worry that a large wolf population poses an unacceptable threat to other wildlife and livestock.
Under the bill now awaiting Mead's signature, the state would allow trophy hunting for wolves in a flexible zone around Yellowstone National Park beginning this fall, while classifying wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in the rest of the state.
"I'm obviously pleased with the progression of the wolf bill," Mead said Monday. His agreement with the federal government requires Wyoming to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and at least 100 individual animals outside of Yellowstone and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Mead said he spoke with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in Washington late last month. "He reminded me that they've taken a lot of pressure on this, but he remains committed to what Wyoming's doing," Mead said of Salazar.
Wyoming had an estimated 343 wolves at the end of 2010: eight breeding pairs and 113 individuals inside Yellowstone and 19 breeding pairs and 230 individuals outside the park, said Steve Ferrell, the governor's wildlife policy adviser.
It remains uncertain whether Wyoming can secure congressional protections against legal challenges to the delisting action. Congress earlier extended such protection to wolf delisting actions in Idaho and Montana.
If Congress fails to fireproof Wyoming's wolf delisting plan against legal challenges, many say they expect the state to be back in court as soon as the ink dries on the final federal delisting action this fall.
Doug Honnold, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., has represented environmental groups in fighting wolf delisting efforts. He said Tuesday he believes it's likely that Wyoming's wolf plan will be challenged without congressional protection.
"Probably the issue that has most people who care about wolves hopping mad is that Wyoming still is taking an approach where in the vast majority of the state that wolves are designated as predators and the shoot-on-sight laws remain in place," Honnold said.
"And what the Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming cooked up is to have a relatively small area where the predator status would be shifted for a few months and wolves would have to run the gauntlet," Honnold said. "And we believe that's an inappropriate approach to make sure that wolves are fully protected."
Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, is chairman of the Senate committee that handles wildlife issues. He said Tuesday that he doesn't expect Congress will act during an election year to protect Wyoming's delisting plan.
"I think it leaves Wyoming subject to the lawsuits that I think will be filed on the same day the rule becomes effective," Burns said. However, he said he thinks the state ultimately will prevail in the courts, especially given that Congress already has endorsed delisting in Idaho and Montana.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, had pushed language last year in a congressional spending bill to prohibit legal challenges to the state's wolf plan, but it was eventually removed. Christine S. D'Amico, press secretary to Lummis, said Tuesday the congresswoman continues to evaluate all possible avenues.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said his membership is generally pleased with the wolf plan. However, he said members are very concerned, "that unless we can get some protections from Congress, the lawsuits will begin."
Magagna said only a relatively few species ever have been delisted from the Endangered Species Act. "Here's an opportunity to show that a major, high profile species can be delisted if we can stop the litigation," he said.