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Feds downplay wolf impacts

The chasm remains vast between the state and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wyoming’s attempts to have wolves removed from federal protection.

That gap widened further Tuesday when state officials filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking an order directing the federal agency to proceed with delisting the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies.

In July, the federal wildlife agency rejected Wyoming’s petition for delisting, continuing steadfast in the agency's demands that for delisting to proceed, wolves must be:

* Classified as trophy game animals.

* That the state commit to maintaining some wolf packs in northwest Wyoming outside national parks.

* And that the state change its definition of what constitutes a wolf pack so that Montana, Idaho and Wyoming all use similar definitions.

The minimum recovery goal for wolves in the Northern Rockies is a total of 30 breeding pairs and at least 300 wolves, with Montana, Idaho and Wyoming each sustaining a minimum of 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves for a minimum of three consecutive years. This goal was attained in 2002. Last month, Fish and Wildlife estimated the tri-state area contains a minimum of 1,229 wolves and 87 breeding pairs, including 309 wolves in Wyoming, with 24 potential breeding pairs.

The federal rejection of the Wyoming wolf petition prompted Game and Fish to prepare a technical analysis of that rejection in preparation for the filing of the lawsuit. Game and Fish Director Terry Cleveland sent the analysis, along with a cover letter, to Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Mitch King last week, asserting that the rejection of the wolf petition was “flawed in various aspects and is lacking depth and understanding of several issues brought forth in Wyoming’s petition.”

Cleveland accused Fish and Wildlife of delaying delisting with reasoning based on “unrealistic assumptions, misinterpretation of data, misrepresentation” and said the agency used “infeasible or highly unrealistic” hypothetical examples.

The state wildlife agency took Fish and Wildlife to task in its 60-page analysis of the rejection of the state’s petition. Game and Fish noted that when wolf reintroduction was examined in an environmental impact statement in 1994, that analysis examined the impact of a recovered wolf population of 100 animals in Wyoming. Now that Wyoming has a minimum of 300 wolves, Fish and Wildlife only discusses impacts as a rate per 100 wolves, rather than the impact of the total wolf population, which is at least three times that original number.

Wyoming Game and Fish says the federal agency “has a permanent, legal obligation to manage wolves at the levels on which the wolf recovery program was originally predicated, the levels described by the impact analysis in the 1994 EIS.”

Wyoming Attorney General Pat Crank said Tuesday that the state is eager to have a judge review whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to reject the management plan was warranted.

"We've alleged all along that they've failed to follow the best science mandate, and the rejection of our management plan was based on political considerations, especially fear of future lawsuits by environmental groups," Crank said.

Crank said the state has concerns about the growing wolf population. "It's a very serious issue with regard to the health of our other wildlife herds. It's a serious issue with regard to our livestock producers," he said.

The lawsuit also seeks a court order to force the Fish and Wildlife to act on state proposals to limit the wolves' effect on wildlife and livestock. Crank said the proposals include allowing state wardens to intervene if wolves harass elk at state winter feedgrounds.

Eric Keszler, public information officer for Game and Fish, said Tuesday the department estimates there are now about 30 wolf packs in the state.

"The number of wolves has been growing by about 20 percent a year since they've been introduced," Keszler said.

Keszler said the department doesn't have any conclusive studies about the effect of wolves on Wyoming's elk and deer herds. But he said, "There are lower cow-calf ratios than there have been in previous years in some of the elk herds where we know wolves are present."

“Despite research findings in Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone Area, and monitoring evidence in Wyoming that indicate wolf predation is having an impact on ungulate populations that will reduce hunter opportunity if the current impact levels persist, the (Fish and Wildlife) Service continues to rigidly deny wolf predation is a problem," the Wyoming Game and Fish analysis says.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said his group and others, known as the Wolf Coalition, strongly support the state lawsuit.

"We're seeing tremendous growth in the population," Magagna said. "And each year we're seeing more wolf predation of livestock, and they are more dispersed over a geographical area."

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Mont., said Tuesday that his agency had expected the state lawsuit but was sorry to see it filed nonetheless.

"I guess the bottom line is I'm kind of sorry to just see this court stuff just go on and on and on," Bangs said. "We'll do our best to see all the information presented, and defend our position, if that's the right thing to do."

Bangs said that once Wyoming has a federally approved wolf management plan in place, the state will be able to take over management of the animals.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has already turned management of wolves over to state agencies in Montana and Idaho. About 400 wolves have been killed in those states for preying on livestock and for other reasons since 1987, Bangs said earlier.