CHEYENNE — Wyoming lawmakers appear ready to change the state's wolf management law to accommodate an agreement that Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar reached last year on ending federal protections for the animals in the state.
Under the agreement, wolves could be shot on sight in much of the state. The Republican governor has made wolf management a priority, saying the animals threaten agricultural interests and other wildlife.
Officials say there are about 300 wolves in the state, and Mead has said the population grows by 10 percent every year.
Under the deal, Wyoming would commit to maintaining 15 breeding pairs and at least 150 animals in the state, including within Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation. The state would be responsible for keeping at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside the park and the reservation.
The agreement calls for wolves to be treated as protected game animals in a flexible zone around Yellowstone but classified as unprotected predators that could be shot on sight in the rest of the state.
Steve Ferrell, wildlife policy adviser to the governor, briefed members of the Legislature's Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee on the deal Tuesday in Cheyenne.
Mead, in his State of the State Address a day earlier, identified increasing wolf populations as an issue that needed attention. "(W)e have lost the ability to manage that which belongs to us — our wildlife, where wolves threaten our Ag, wildlife and outfitters," he said. "It is time to move forward."
The state has been struggling for years to end federal protections for wolves, which have spread and increasingly preyed on livestock and other wildlife since they were reintroduced in Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. Representatives from groups representing livestock producers and sportsmen told the committee Tuesday that they support the agreement to end federal protections.
Ferrell and lawyer Jay Jerde of the Wyoming Attorney General's Office told the committee that it's possible the federal government could take final action ending federal protections for wolves in Wyoming by late September if the Legislature approves the agreement.
Speaking after Ferrell's presentation, committee co-chairman Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said he expects the Legislature this session to endorse the wolf delisting agreement with no major changes.
The states of Idaho and Montana already have taken over wolf management from the federal government. Congress specified that the wolf delisting decisions affecting those states were immune from legal challenge.
Wyoming lawmakers appear ready to approve the wolf delisting agreement for their state without having similar congressional protection against legal challenges in place. A provision that would have banned legal challenges to delisting in Wyoming had been included in a congressional spending bill last year but the language was stripped out.
"We still very much want congressional protection from judicial review as part of this package," Ferrell told lawmakers. He said he's been in contact with members of Wyoming's congressional delegation continuing to seeking that protection.
However, Ferrell said people in Washington have advised him that the Legislature shouldn't condition its approval of the delisting agreement on first getting a congressional guarantee of immunity from legal challenges. He said Congress is unlikely to promise immunity to a wolf management plan that the state hasn't yet approved.
"I think that's probably a leap of faith to ask congressmen to do something like that," Ferrell said.
Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Del McOmie, R-Lander, said Wyoming can't expect Congress to promise protection from lawsuits before the state endorses a specific wolf management plan. "We don't do that in this Legislature either," he said. "We pitch fits if there's not specificity."
Wyoming has good reason to be concerned about the prospect of legal challenges to its delisting plan if it doesn't get the legal immunity from Congress. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife a few years ago approved a similar delisting agreement with the state only to repudiate it shortly afterward when a federal judge expressed concern in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups that it wouldn't provide adequate protection for wolves.