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Wolf sleigh ride 1995
Some of the first gray wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park are loaded onto a sleigh for the ride to a holding pen in the park in the winter of 1995.

Federal wildlife authorities were on the right track two years ago when they proposed removing gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the endangered species list and turning over wolf management to the states that had developed management plans to meet federal standards for species survival.

The effect of a one-paragraph rider in the federal budget bill passed last week will put that 2009 plan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into action.

Unprecedented intervention

The effect of the wolf rider is implementation of a practical solution to balance species protection with hunter-rancher interests. However, the means by which it was achieved may set an undesirable precedent.

Opponents of the rider point out that this is the first time in the 30-year history of the Endangered Species Act that Congress has intervened to remove the law’s protection to allow killing of wildlife. Rider proponents argue that the gray wolf case is unique and justified congressional intervention.

Both of Montana’s U.S. senators supported the wolf rider. Max Baucus gives his opinion elsewhere on this page. Jon Tester collaborated with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, to add the wolf rule to the budget bill. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., voted against the budget bill, but previously criticized relisting of wolves.

“We fixed this problem,” Tester said.

As previously reported by The Gazette, Wyoming lawmakers inserted language into the bill specifying that it wouldn’t affect a lawsuit by the state against the federal government over wolves. U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson in Cheyenne last year ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to have rejected Wyoming’s wolf plan, but he only ordered the government to reconsider the plan — not necessarily accept it.

The delisting rule will be take effect in 60 days in Montana and Idaho and won’t be subject to judicial review, according to the rider.

Immediately after U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula ruled against the delisting proposal last summer, members of Montana’s congressional delegation started talking about changing the Endangered Species Act to delist wolves.

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Recognizing that a change in law would set a bad precedent for endangered species protection, 10 of the 14 plaintiff groups agreed last month to settle the lawsuit. But Molloy sided with the nonsettling parties and rejected the settlement proposal on the same day that Tester and Simpson announced the wolf rider.

It was almost four years ago, that the Western gray wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it was time to start treating wolves like resident game animals. That was to be accomplished by changing rules to make it easier to kill wolves that are attacking elk, dogs, cattle and other livestock.

1,650 wolves in 3 states

Back then, the three-state wolf population was estimated to be 1,300. The Wildlife Service proposed that Montana, Wyoming and Idaho each maintain at least 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs. Today, there are an estimated 1,650 wolves in the three states, including 1,250 in Montana and Idaho.

As Gov. Brian Schweitzer said last week: “Montana must have the ability to manage wildlife, to do our job, to seek a balance among predator and prey.”

Montana now must prove it will strike that balance: Preserving a viable population of gray wolves while protecting livestock and maintaining game herds.

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