Ending endangered species protection could give hunters a shot at predators by 2008 By Rocky Barker and Roger Phillips Idaho Statesman http://www.idahostatesman.com/273/story/64355.html Idahoans could be hunting wolves within 12 months, when Gov. Jim Risch and state wildlife officials take over managing the state's wolves as federal officials proposed Tuesday. Federal wildlife officials told the Idaho Statesman Tuesday they plan to remove wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, turning over management of the predators to the states. The removal of the wolf from the endangered species list would be the culmination of one of the most heralded conservation success stories of the 20th century. But for many Idahoans, especially ranchers and hunters, it has forced a difficult transition. Wolves were re-introduced in a controversial program that began with 35 wolves in 1995-96. Idaho Fish and Game commissioners said they plan to establish regulations for hunting wolves that will be in place when delisting is final. Before that happens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must publish in the Federal Register its proposal to delist, which Dale Hall, the agency's director said would come by the end of January. The public will have at least 60 days to comment; a final decision is expected a year from the publication. Opponents of delisting, however, worry that Idaho and Wyoming will reduce wolf numbers to minimum levels allowed and are expected to try to halt the delisting in court. That could delay the day when the state takes over wolf management. Hall and Todd Willens, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, told Risch Tuesday they will seek to delist in all three states if Wyoming agrees to expand the area where wolves are protected in that state. Hall and Willens had met earlier Tuesday with Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and other lawmakers, who indicated they would go along with the new federal plan. "We have every reason to believe they will," Willens said. But even if Wyoming doesn't agree, federal officials would go ahead with delisting in Idaho and Montana, Hall said. That's what Idaho officials have been demanding for several years as the wolf population has grown beyond all expectations since wolves were released in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in 1995. Idaho has more than 650 wolves, twice the minimum number the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said was necessary for preserving the viability of the species in the Rocky Mountain region. "This is way overdue," Risch said Tuesday. "They have admitted that wolves are no longer endangered in Idaho." Fish and Wildlife officials have been negotiating with Wyoming for several months, seeking to bridge their differences over a Wyoming law that would allow wolves to be shot on sight outside a trophy-hunting zone. The federal agency decided Tuesday that if the state could expand the trophy area — where wolves would be managed as a game animal — it could allow unlimited wolf killing outside that zone. "It's not any different than what we are doing now," said Mitch King, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director from Denver. "What's the difference if someone else is shooting them?" Idaho would be able to approve similar shoot-on-sight rules once wolves are removed from endangered status, King said. But Idaho Fish and Game Commission Chairman Cameron Wheeler said Idaho plans to manage wolves as a game animal, just as it does mountain lions and black bears. Hunters have to buy a special tag before they can kill these big predators. "That's the template we would probably use," Wheeler said. "I envision it would be like big game seasons with maybe a little more time on each end." The state increases the limits on lions and bears when it seeks to reduce their numbers, such as to allow elk populations to grow or where the predators cause livestock depredation problems. Suzanne Stone, Rocky Mountain representative of the Defenders of Wildlife, worries that Idaho will seek to kill off as many wolves as possible — aiming for the minimum number of about 100 allowed in the state management plan. The Idaho Legislature advocated eradication of wolves and accepted responsibility to protect a minimum population only to delist wolves. "Under the current political climate, delisting will definitely lead to a great reduction of wolves in Idaho," Stone said. Nate Helm, executive director of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, said he would like to see wolf numbers greatly reduced "After delisting occurs, we have the autonomy to adjust to the reality of what we have today," Helm said. This year, wolves have killed more than 300 sheep and 100 cattle in the Council area alone, said Lloyd Knight, executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association. He asks opponents like Stone to consider his members' situation. "For those that don't think delisting is a good idea, if they would like me to break into their home and steal a couple thousand dollars worth of property, then maybe they might understand my folks' perspective on wolves," Knight said. Defenders of Wildlife pays compensation to ranchers for confirmed cases of livestock killed by wolves, Stone said. And Wheeler said state officials won't authorize a wolf slaughter. F&G won't necessarily open the season immediately after wolves are delisted, and would not, for example, open the first season while wolves are raising pups in the spring. Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise, was among the people advocating wolf reintroduction in 1995. Delisting would prove Westerners are humble enough to allow the wild animals to return and smart enough to manage them so they don't destroy people's livelihoods and sports, he said. "I would see getting a tag and being able to hunt and stalk wolves with a bow and arrow as closing the circle," Langhorst said. Even if there's a legal challenge, Risch said he's hopeful a federal court will not issue an injunction stopping the decision to turn management of wolves back to the state. "If that's the case, we will have management in less than 12 months," Risch said. Contact reporter Rocky Barker at [email protected] or 377-6484.