In a blow to environmental groups and a boost for ranchers, the Obama administration announced Friday that it would take the gray wolf off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho, though it left the predator under federal protection in Wyoming.
The delisting allows Montana and Idaho to assume complete management of the animal, which will include a hunting season in both states. The move also delists wolves in the western Great Lakes and parts of Oregon, Utah and Washington.
The new policy was announced by the Bush administration in January, but its adoption was delayed so the incoming Obama administration could assess it.
“The recovery of the gray wolf throughout significant portions of its historic range is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. “Today, we have more than 5,500 wolves, including more than 1,600 in the Rockies.”
Jenny Harbine, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., which has sued to keep the federal protections, said, “We’re disappointed.” She added, “Idaho has shown an eagerness to kill as many wolves as possible, and they are drawing up plans for killing wolves as we speak.”
In 2007, Gov. C. L. Otter of Idaho said he favored reducing the number of wolves there to 100 from more than 800. He also said he would be the first to buy a wolf hunting license.
Officially, however, Idaho has agreed in its state plan to maintain a population of 500 wolves. Montana has agreed to keep 400 wolves. If the number of animals falls below 150 total and 15 breeding pairs for three years in a row, the wolf will be relisted in that state.
Environmentalists sued last year to stop the delisting under the Bush administration. They argued that without protection, wolf numbers were not great enough to assure connectivity between animals in different regions of the northern Rockies, which is crucial to assuring long-term survival.
A federal judge agreed, issuing a temporary injunction to stop the delisting. The Fish and Wildlife Service then dropped its proposal for more study. “We now have information that wolves routinely move back and forth between recovery areas,” said Ed Bangs, the agency’s recovery coordinator in Helena, Mont. “We’ve resolved that issue.”
Environmentalists say they will take the issue back to court.
While state wolf management plans in Idaho and Montana assure protection, federal officials say, the one in Wyoming falls short, so the wolf will remain listed there. Yet in most of Wyoming, the wolf is designated as a predator and could be shot on sight if it were to be delisted. Controversy erupted last year when people chased wolves down on snowmobiles and killed them from planes.