Monday, August 30, 2010

Wolf, grizzly bear cases set back progress, biologists, managers say

Wolves and bears don't behave well in courtrooms.

But the two big predators are likely to spend the next 18 months there as their advocates and enemies try to untangle them from the federal Endangered Species Act.

Last week, Montana wildlife managers decided to appeal U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy's Aug. 5 decision placing the gray wolf back under federal protection. Meanwhile, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in Missoula appealed another Molloy ruling that prevented state management of Yellowstone ecosystem grizzly bears.

No one knows how the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will settle the two lawsuits. But wildlife managers for both wolves and bears fear that years of cooperation and compromise in the woods may wither while the animals' fate is debated - and ultimately decided - on paper.

"If people look in and realize how difficult it is for agencies to work together on anything, they would realize incredible steps were made," said Gregg Losinski, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game official who is part of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Committee. "All the mechanisms were there for bear recovery - that was the frustrating thing. This relisting put things back 20 years."

Molloy's 2009 decision blocked a FWS plan to let states manage about 600 grizzlies living around Yellowstone National Park.

His wolf ruling earlier this summer canceled public wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho for the 2010 season. Montana officials hoped hunters would kill 186 wolves and bring the state's population down to about 450 animals. Wolves are blamed for both falling elk and deer numbers and growing domestic livestock attacks.


If a wolf threatened Bob Rowland's cows last month, he could reach for his rifle. Now he has to reach for a telephone.

The Ovando area rancher sees some black irony in the Aug. 5 court decision placing gray wolves back under federal Endangered Species Act protection.

Molloy ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service improperly gave Montana and Idaho wildlife managers control of their wolves, but excluded Wyoming because its plan didn't meet federal standards. He wrote that threatened species should be managed by their habitat area, not by state lines.

"It makes you wonder when Mr. Molloy says we have to treat all three states the same, but we split Montana in half," Rowland said.

That's because wolves in the northern half of the state (including Rowland's ranch) moved in naturally from Canada and are considered threatened and federally protected. Wolves roughly south of Interstate 90 are assumed to descend from a population transplanted to Yellowstone Park and the Idaho wilderness in 1995. Those wolves are "experimental" and have considerably less stringent protections.

It's a practical matter for Rowland. A fellow rancher 30 miles away in Avon can shoot a wolf that's harassing cattle. Rowland must call a federal Wildlife Services hunter if he has the same problem. And that's after he and other members of the Blackfoot Challenge landowners network spent years on innovative ways to co-exist with wolves.

"I don't think our tree-hugging friends want to piss us off," Rowland said. "We're to the point where we realize the carrot's just going to keep getting moved. Maybe it's time to buck a little bit."

Chris Servheen sounds equally frustrated. The head of the federal government's grizzly bear recovery program fears the bears he's spent decades trying to save may have turned a bad corner.

"It really breeds mistrust in the public and amongst all the agencies that do the work when we go to court," Servheen said. "We've seen it with the wolves, where people become angry and less likely to support these species. The law as it's written provides the guidance we need to recover (a threatened species). That's what we did with grizzly bears and that's what we did with wolves.

"When courts add their own requirements to these laws, it makes it almost impossible to achieve success in these recovery areas. Legal blockage makes it difficult for the public to invest in it. They become suspicious and cynical about the whole thing. It poisons the well when courts intervene in these things."


The legal work is taking place while both wolves and grizzlies are getting tabloid-style scrutiny. After a grizzly killed a camper near Yellowstone Park this summer, an Associated Press story reminded readers that grizzlies "have been known to peel off a man's face with a single swipe of their massive, clawed paws."

A widely distributed essay by a former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist warned of "increasingly stressful rural life where wolf attacks and sightings have placed parents and grandparents in fear when kids ask to go fishing or to go to or come from rural school bus stops or to take out garbage."

"Those stories kill bears," Servheen said of the AP article. "They're the National Inquirer-type crap that poisons people's minds. We could have all the cooperative efforts, 30 years in the Yellowstone, dissolve and disappear because people think it's futile."

There are other ways out of the courtroom, at least for wolves. And one leads through Congress.

Sen. Max Baucus pledged shortly after Molloy's wolf ruling he would "introduce legislation that puts wolves under Montana's management." Rep. Denny Rehberg said he would co-sponsor Texas Rep. Chet Edwards' H.R. 6028, which would amend the Endangered Species Act and remove wolves from its jurisdiction.

Another goes back into the rulebook. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf program coordinator Carolyn Sime said the state is considering a 10-J exemption, which would give Montanans increased federal leeway to manage wolves.

Lots of unknowns dot that path. The 10-J rule probably wouldn't affect Montana's northern threatened population, but it might let ranchers protect livestock in southern counties. How that might affect some packs that appear to roam across the line is uncertain.

It's also unknown if the rule can be stretched to include population control - not just immediate threats. Hunter groups throughout the state want wolf numbers reduced.

"To change the rules for delisting based upon a vision of more wolves on the landscape ignores the evidence that wolves are recovered, and ready to be delisted and managed permanently in Montana and Idaho," Montana Wildlife Federation director Craig Sharpe wrote in a letter backing the FWP legal challenge. He was joined by the Montana Bowhunters Association and nine rod and gun clubs in the state.

Sharpe said the 1994 federal wolf reintroduction plans anticipated wolves could hurt big-game populations and could be controlled if elk and deer were suffering.

But Sime pointed out another potential snag. Even if Montana gets permission for greater local control, that could wind up in court too.

"We have to ask if pursuit (of a 10-J exemption) is a wise use of agency resources," Sime said. "Will it get litigated?"

The Blackfoot Challenge linked together ranchers like Rowland, state managers like Sime and federal biologists like Servheen to help humans and wildlife coexist. Its own wildlife manager, Seth Wilson, said the challenge now is to keep that linkage alive while the courts grind on.

"The networks and the trust we've worked very hard to build will survive this," Wilson said. "And whether they're listed or not listed, it doesn't really matter to a bear or wolf. They're going to continue to do what they do."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at

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