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Politicians wrangle over wolf legislation Lawmakers split over whether to fix Wyoming's wolf plan.

By Rebecca Huntington

Several state lawmakers say they will support changing Wyoming's wolf law to make it palatable to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, possibly speeding up delisting.

But one key lawmaker who represents Wilson promised to oppose such changes.

Sen. Bruce Burns of Sheridan, R, SD-21, is spearheading efforts to draft a bill that seeks to address the federal government's concerns about how Wyoming would manage wolves once federal protections are lifted. Last week the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected Wyoming's plan because it classified wolves as predators outside the national parks and adjacent wilderness areas. Predators are subject to unregulated killing.

Burns' drive to change the wolf law has the support of at least two Teton County legislators, but Sen. Delaine Roberts, an Etna Republican who represents the Wilson area, said Monday he would oppose legislative attempts to undo predator status.

"I think we ought to stand firm on the plan we submitted," Roberts said. "It took us a year and a half to come up with it. During that time, we counseled with a lot of different people, including the Fish and Wildlife Service."

Roberts chairs the Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Committee, which held a hearing on the wolf pan Thursday in Laramie.

"We heard from the cattle association and farm bureau and the sheep people and sportsmen, and they said hold firm and not to give into them," he said.

While Roberts was obstinate in his opposition, Rep. Pete Jorgensen of Jackson, D, HD-16, said he would support Burns' bill.

"I will co-sponsor that," Jorgensen said Tuesday.

Similarly, Sen. Grant Larson of Jackson, R, SD-17, said he would support changes to the wolf law. But Larson stopped short of backing the Burns bill, saying it is too soon to endorse specific legislation.

"Conceptually, I think that we have to do something to get the wolf delisted," Larson said.

Last year, Jorgensen, Larson and Teton County's other two legislators - Reps. Clarene Law of Jackson, R, HD-23, and Monte Olsen of Daniel, R, HD-22 - voted for a law that classified wolves as predators across the state, except in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and adjacent wilderness areas. Inside the parks, wolves would receive full protection. In wilderness areas, wolves would be managed as trophy game and could be taken according to hunting regulations.

Jorgensen said last year's vote was "political."

"I know that wolves are prolific," he said. "I felt that I would support the ag culture because I wasn't afraid that the wolves would disappear. I thought that we could come back in 10 or 15 years and make that work."

But the federal government wants changes now. In a letter last week, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams said his agency would not proceed with delisting, a step to turn wolf management over to states, until Wyoming fixed its plan. The Service has approved management plans drafted by Idaho and Montana.

Williams outlined three problems with the Wyoming plan. He wrote that predator classification must be changed and state law must be clarified to commit to maintaining 15 wolf packs in Wyoming. Also, packs must be defined according to a mutually agreed-upon standard, he wrote.

Jorgensen and Larson indicated those changes could be made while still protecting the interests of ranchers and hunters.

But other lawmakers, including Sen. Roberts, are not comfortable deeming wolves "trophy game." Changing wolf status to trophy game would give the Wyoming Game and Fish Department authority to manage the species by setting hunt regulations. Game and Fish does not have authority over predators.

This is a sticking point, Larson said Monday.

Predator status 'critical' "I know that many in the outfitters and agriculture do not really trust the Game and Fish to keep the control that they would like to see," he said. "But nevertheless, if we don't get it delisted, we're going to have more wolves than we can ever control."

Even under trophy game status, Rep. Jorgensen suggested Game and Fish could set liberal hunting seasons to keep wolf numbers in check. "It requires faith in the Game and Fish Commission, and the scientific folks they have," he said. "I have that faith."

U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas said Wyoming could get the same results without calling wolves predators. "I believe that there are ways in which we could manage them with the same effect," Thomas said Saturday.

Roberts disagreed. Of predator status, he said, "I think it's critical."

The Burns bill would be assigned to Roberts' committee if it is introduced when the Legislature convenes Feb. 9. Because this is a budget session, the bill must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate to be introduced. Larson, the Senate majority floor leader, said a bill backed by committee would stand a better chance than one brought by an individual. But Roberts said Monday his committee is not working on a wolf bill.

The rejection of Wyoming's wolf plan will delay delisting in Montana and Idaho. The service maintains that the tri-state wolf population is a distinct segment that must be managed as one unit and cannot be delisted until all three states have approved plans. The Idaho and Montana plans do not classify wolves as predators and subject them to unlimited killing.

Idaho and Montana officials had pleaded with Wyoming to cooperate with the federal government as far back as a meeting in Jackson in October 2002. At that meeting, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission shot down a plan, drafted by its own agency professionals, that would have classified wolves as trophy game statewide. The commission ordered staff to rewrite the plan with a predator classification despite a Sept. 26, 2002, letter from Fish and Wildlife Director Williams, who said the predator classification would not fly. At that time, Williams said predator status, as proposed, failed to provide adequate protection to wolves. State lawmakers have accused the service of flip-flopping on whether or not predator status would be accepted.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and others have raised the idea of fighting the federal government in court.

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