Wyoming and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Reach Agreement on Wolf Plan

wolf in yellowstone

Last week, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the State of Wyoming announced that they had reached an agreement over Wyoming’s long-disputed wolf management plan. Such an agreement paves the way for the Fish & Wildlife Service to remove Wyoming’s almost 350 wolves from the endangered species list in the near future. Unfortunately, the feds got very little in the negotiations, and Wyoming walked away with its draconian wolf management plan pretty much intact. 

To put this agreement in context, you need some background information.

The Achilles’ heel of Wyoming’s wolf management plan has been twofold: it has failed to commit to maintaining at least 15 breeding pairs of wolves in Wyoming, and it has designated wolves as predators that can be killed by anyone at any time without a license in about 90% of the state. (In the other 10% of Wyoming, the northwest corner of the state, wolves would be classified as a trophy game species and managed as such.) 

Almost ten years ago, the Fish & Wildlife Service rejected Wyoming’s 2003 wolf management plan because, among other things, the plan failed to clearly commit to managing for at least 15 breeding pairs in the state, and the predatory status of wolves under the plan did not “provide sufficient management controls to assure the Service that the wolf population [would] remain above recovery levels.”

Wyoming tweaked its plan in 2007, and the Fish & Wildlife Service did an about-face and approved it, notwithstanding the plan's retention of the defects the Fish & Wildlife Service had already said were unacceptable.

Following the Service’s approval of Wyoming’s 2007 wolf management plan, the Bush Administration removed Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in the Northern Rockies in early 2008. For several reasons, one of which was the blatant inadequacy of Wyoming’s wolf management plan, NRDC and other conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, challenged the “delisting” rule in federal court. We won the lawsuit, and one of the primary reasons for our victory was that the federal judge presiding over the case found that the Fish & Wildlife Service’s reversal on Wyoming’s plan was arbitrary and capricious. 

With Wyoming unwilling to play ball with the feds, and with the political pressure to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies mounting, the Bush Administration got around the “Wyoming problem” by simply delisting wolves in all of the Northern Rockies except Wyoming during its last week in office in January 2009, notwithstanding such a state-by-state delisting being patently illegal under the Endangered Species Act. 

The Obama Administration rubber-stamped the all-of-the-Northern-Rockies-except-Wyoming delisting rule in the spring of 2009. The same coalition of conservation groups challenged this delisting rule as well, and, because the rule was blatantly illegal, we won the lawsuit last August. Following our victory, the political pressure reached a fever pitch, and, as you probably know by now, wolves in the Northern Rockies (except Wyoming – where the state still didn't have an adequate management plan) were removed from the endangered species list this past spring through the insertion of a delisting rider (no Congressional hearings, no process) to a must-pass budget bill.

With wolves delisted in all of the Northern Rockies but Wyoming, all eyes have turned to The Cowboy State in recent months, as the Fish & Wildlife Service has pushed Wyoming to legitimately revise its wolf management plan so the Service can also remove Wyoming’s wolves from the endangered species list.

But after months of negotiating, the Fish & Wildlife Service has agreed to a mere marginal improvement in Wyoming’s plan. The new modified “dual-status” plan would again classify and protect wolves with trophy game status only in the northwest corner of the state, meaning you must have a hunting license to hunt wolves in Wyoming’s northwest corner. In the rest of the state, wolves would be considered "predators" and could be killed on sight by anyone at any time without a license.

The new twist in the dual-status plan is that Wyoming would also establish a “flex zone” for parts of three counties immediately south of the northwest trophy game area. In the flex zone, wolves would be protected from October 15 through the end of the following February so they can travel and connect with other wolves in central Idaho. For the remainder of the year, the shoot-on-sight predator status would apply (even though the county commissioners from one of the three counties, Teton County, appealed to the Governor of Wyoming to keep wolves from being killed as predators there).

For contextual background purposes, in rejecting Wyoming’s 2003 plan the Fish & Wildlife Service indicated that wolves should be designated as trophy game statewide and stated:

The designation of wolves as ‘trophy game’ statewide would allow Wyoming to devise a management strategy that provides for self-sustaining populations above recovery goals, regulated harvest and adequate monitoring of that harvest. As is the case with other trophy game in Wyoming, the state could establish management areas, season dates, and quota limits to control populations in a regulated manner. In addition, Wyoming could address wolf depredation concerns through regulations that exist for currently classified trophy game animals.

So much for that.

Another change to the plan is that Wyoming will be required to maintain 100 wolves, including 10 breeding pairs, outside Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation. Above that minimum requirement, Wyoming also says it is “committed to manage wolves by using its statutory and regulatory authority to implement the commitments in this plan, and in cooperation with [Yellowstone National Park] and the [Wind River Reservation], to ensure the minimum recovery goals of at least 15 breeding pairs and at least 150 wolves are maintained.” Because Wyoming has no authority to manage wolves in Yellowstone or on the Wind River Reservation, however, this pledge of maintaining 15 breeding pairs in conjunction with Yellowstone and the Wind River Reservation has been a big issue in the past (and even 150 and 15 are really low numbers when you’re talking about the long-term conservation of the species in the Northern Rockies).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s agreement to Wyoming’s plan is disappointing. It’s akin to a guy walking into a nice restaurant for dinner completely bare-chested and asking for a corner booth. The restaurant manager tells him he can’t enter the restaurant without a shirt on, so he goes into the parking lot, ties a few shoelaces around his stomach, walks back into the restaurant, and the manager says, “Let me show you to your table.”

Or, in the words of the federal judge that found the Service’s change in position on Wyoming’s tweaked 2007 plan to be arbitrary and capricious:

In 2004, the Fish & Wildlife Service rejected Wyoming’s 2003 wolf management plan. The Service determined the 2003 plan was inadequate to protect wolves because it permitted Wyoming state officials to classify the wolf as a predatory animal throughout the state and then failed to clearly commit the state to managing for 15 breeding pairs within its borders. Before delisting the wolf, the Fish & Wildlife Service approved Wyoming’s revised 2007 plan. This revised plan suffers from the same deficiencies as the 2003 plan: it classifies the wolf as a predatory animal in almost 90 percent of the state and only commits the state to managing for 7 breeding pairs outside the national parks. In supporting its decision to approve Wyoming’s 2007 plan, the Service does not offer any information not available to it when it rejected the 2003 plan. Armed with the same information, the agency flip-flopped without explanation.

Now it’s the 2011 plan and the only significant changes are the seasonal “flex zone” and a commitment to managing for 10 breeding pairs outside Yellowstone and Wind River (as opposed to 7 breeding pairs outside both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks).

We hoped the Fish & Wildlife Service would pressure Wyoming in their negotiations to adopt a more conservation-oriented wolf management plan, but no such luck, as it turns out. (Or, in the blunter words of Wyoming State Representative Keith Gingery in today's Jackson Hole News & Guide, "The Obama administration folded like a cheap accordion.")

That said, last week’s agreement still has a ways to go before it becomes the official Wyoming wolf management plan and wolves are removed from the endangered species list in Wyoming. Specifically, the Wyoming Fish & Game Commission must approve it, the Wyoming State Legislature needs to codify it, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also has to officially sign off on it. 

The Wyoming Fish & Game Commission will be accepting public comments on its revised wolf management plan through September 9. NRDC will be submitting comments on the revised plan, and we hope others will as well. 

Wolf recovery has simply come too far in the Northern Rockies for such an outdated anti-wolf plan to be accepted. 

About the Authors

Matt Skoglund

Director, Northern Rockies office

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