CHEYENNE — One of the five scientists retained by a federal government contractor to review Wyoming's proposed wolf management states in a recently released report that he sees shortcomings with it.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week released a peer review of Wyoming's management plan for the gray wolf. The report follows last summer's agreement between Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to end federal protections for wolves in Wyoming.
Their deal, which still needs approval from the Wyoming Legislature, calls for the state to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park. Wolves would be protected as trophy game animals in northwestern Wyoming in a flexible area outside the park but classified as predators that could be shot on sight elsewhere.
Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone and other areas in the mid-1990s. The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has rebounded since then to more than 1,600 animals, including more than 300 in Wyoming.
While four of the scientists in the peer review generally approved of the plan, wolf researcher John A. Vucetich, an associate professor at Michigan Technological University, in Houghton, Mich., criticized it as vague and said it may overestimate the annual mortality wolf populations can sustain. The peer review report carries no legal weight.
Wyoming is anxious to get Congress to exempt its wolf management plan from legal challenges, as it did earlier for state wolf plans adopted by Idaho and Montana. Congress last month stripped a similar proposed exemption for the Wyoming plan from a spending bill but state officials are hoping to resurrect it in some form.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 endorsed an earlier Wyoming management plan but later repudiated it after a federal judge criticized it in response to a lawsuit file by environmental groups. Future legal challenges are likely if Wyoming fails to secure the legal immunity provision it wants.
In a telephone interview on Thursday, Vucetich said he's concerned the current Wyoming plan is too vague. He noted, for example, that it says Wyoming wants to kill wolves to reduce conflicts with elk hunting but said many people in the state might take that to mean that there should be no wolves at all.
"It's not that (wolf) hunting is necessarily incompatible with recovery, but it sure can be," Vucetich said. "And because of that, it's got to be done carefully. The thing that goes right along with that is that's not an abstract or general idea. Humans killing wolves is the reason they're endangered."
Vucetich said he trusts current state officials who say that they're committed to keeping Wyoming's wolf population at sustainable levels. However, he said those people won't always be in their jobs and said the plan needs to stand on its own.
Gov. Mead said Wednesday that he's pleased four of the five peer reviewers said that Wyoming's proposal is credible.
"We will analyze this review closely and address any points that need further action," Mead said. "I continue to be cautiously optimistic that control of wolves will return to the state of Wyoming."
Steve Ferrell, wildlife and endangered species policy adviser to Mead, said Thursday that Vucetich's concerns should be easy for the state to address.
Ferrell said the state has no intention of allowing the wolf population to slip down to the minimum level of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs. "We're going to manage for a little cushion above that," he said.
Chris Colligan, Wildlife Advocate with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Jackson, said Thursday that Vucetich's comments reinforce some of the concerns his group has had all along that Wyoming and the Fish and Wildlife Service are moving forward with a faulty plan.
"Hopefully this opens up an opportunity to revise the plan and get it right," Colligan said.