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CHEYENNE, Wyo. — State and federal officials say they are close to an agreement to put Wyoming wolves under state control, resolving a contentious, years-long battle between Cheyenne and Washington, D.C.

But if and when that happens, there will still be at least three more hurdles to cross.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Legislature both have to approve the deal.

In addition, Gov. Matt Mead and other leaders want Congress to pass a no-litigation clause protecting any agreement against lawsuits from environmental groups and others.

Where things stand

After a meeting in Cheyenne last week, Mead, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said they agreed “in principle” on creating a “dual-status” plan for Wyoming under which wolves in the northwest part of the state would be protected as “trophy game,” meaning they could only be hunted with a license.

They also agreed in principle on creating a wolf “flex area” in Sublette and Lincoln counties, in which wolves would only have trophy status during part of the winter so they can connect with other wolves in Idaho.

Unregulated killing of the animals would be permitted in the rest of the state.

Under the plan, Wyoming would be required to maintain 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, outside Yellowstone National Park. That’s about a third of current wolf numbers outside Yellowstone, Mead said.

The 60 or so wolves in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks — which includes five to six breeding pairs — would be delisted but wouldn’t be under state control.

Former Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Steve Ferrell, who represents Wyoming in the wolf negotiations, said there are only three issues left to work out: drawing the final southern boundary of the flex area, determining long how the winter protection period will last each year, and agreeing on Wyoming’s wolf management strategy after delisting.

The two sides are “pretty close” to agreement on all three issues, Ferrell said.

Ferrell said there are two options being discussed for where the southern boundary should run. Both are about 90 miles south of the current “trophy game” boundary near Jackson.

Ferrell said landowners along the southern boundary line have indicated support for one of the two options, though he declined to give specifics.

With local stakeholders on board, Ferrell said he’s “really optimistic that we could reach agreement by the end of July.”

The next steps

If and when an agreement is reached, it then has to be approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Legislature.

On the federal side, Fish and Wildlife would first publish a draft rule in the Federal Register, followed by a year-or-so-long approval process, including a public comment period.

Meanwhile, the Legislature would have to pass legislation approving the deal and changing the state’s wolf management plan. That could happen either during next year’s budget session or in a special session called by the governor.

Senate President Jim Anderson, R-Glenrock, said he’s optimistic that the Legislature would pass the plan if it stays the way it looks now and if local landowners and stakeholder groups — such as agricultural producers — support it.

“Under those conditions, and if they accept Wyoming’s dual listing, I think the chances of the Legislature approving it would be very, very favorable,” Anderson said.

While there’s been talk of Mead calling a special session to ratify the wolf deal before the 2012 budget session starts in February, legislative leaders said the governor hasn’t approached them about it.

Mead previously said he would consider calling a special session if he believes it to be necessary.

“If (a special session) were necessary, that would be something that we would very seriously consider,” Anderson said.

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Congressional ‘fix’

Wyoming’s toughest battle over wolves could come in Congress.

While Congress doesn’t need to approve a Wyoming wolf deal, Mead and other state officials have repeatedly said congressional protection against lawsuits is vital to any agreement that’s reached.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., successfully inserted a “no-litigation” measure into a 2012 congressional appropriations bill, as well as a clause that would immediately put Wyoming wolves under state control. The bill awaits floor debate in the House after it passed out of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday evening.

It’s the same tactic used successfully three months ago, when Montana’s two U.S. senators added a “rider” to a must-pass budget bill that delisted wolves in five Western states and prevented judicial review of the decision.

But congressional observers are skeptical that Wyoming can now accomplish the same thing.

Several congressional staffers and environmental groups said they expect Lummis’ rider to successfully pass the Republican-controlled House. But it’s uncertain how the proposal will fare in the Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats.

In addition, unlike the five-state delisting rider that passed in April, the Obama administration has spoken out against a no-litigation clause for Wyoming’s wolf agreement.

In prepared remarks for a speech at a conservation conference in Madison, Wis., on Thursday, Salazar called Lummis’ wolf rider “problematic” and “unnecessary.”

Salazar also lashed out at other provisions inserted into the appropriations bill, including proposals to block the secretary of Interior from withdrawing public lands near Grand Canyon National Park from future mining claims and stripping the Fish and Wildlife Service of its ability to protect threatened species.

In a media release, Lummis said that despite Salazar’s criticism, the Interior Department’s statements and actions show it wants to move beyond the legal fights every bit as much as she does.

“I don’t care about what Secretary Salazar says, I care about what he does,” she said in the release. “And he knows that it is time to return management of wolves to Wyoming’s on-the-ground experts.”

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