Wrestling with wolves


The U.S. Senate last Friday proposed a 350-page budget bill with one particularly furry paragraph:

Section 1709. Before the end of the 60-day period beginning on the date of enactment of this division, the Secretary of the Interior shall reissue the final rule published on April 2, 2009 (74 Fed. Reg. 15123 et seq.) without regard to any other provision of statute or regulation that applies to issuance of such rule. Such reissuance (including this section) shall not be subject to judicial review.

Obscured in this bureaucratic babble is a covert attempt to strip Northern Rockies gray wolves from the endangered species list. The page cited in the Federal Register contains the 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife rule to de-list wolves in Idaho and Montana -- the same rule tossed out in U.S. district court last year for violating the Endangered Species Act. This time, however, the rule "shall not be subject to judicial review" -- it can't be taken back to the courts.

The federal budget measure is the latest in a string of proposed rules and legislation around the West reflecting a growing anti-wolf sentiment as wolf populations rebound. In Montana, a state House bill calling for wolf de-listing passed 99-100. Another bill would ignore federal law and have the state start killing wolves on its own accord, echoing Governor Schweitzer's recent rallying cry for state wildlife agents and ranchers to defy the feds and shoot wolves as needed, even where federally protected. Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter likewise declared in October that his state would no longer monitor wolves or go after poachers. Last month, U.S. Fish and Wildlife moved forward with a petition by the state of Idaho to kill about 60 wolves to protect elk herds in north-central Idaho. Bills in the U.S. House and Senate also seek to de-list Northern Rockies gray wolves and return management decisions to the states.

In Washington state, three proposed bills go after wolves, including one that would require the state's nearly completed wolf recovery plan to be approved (or potentially vetoed) by the legislature, an unprecedented move in the state and another attempt to inject heated politics into the science of wolf management.

Meanwhile, the only wolf pack in the state's Cascade Mountains -- discovered just two and a half years ago  -- is already dwindling at the hands of poachers. The pack's alpha female has been missing since last July when its radio collar signal went mysteriously silent; foul play is suspected. Without her presence, the pack may have since disbanded. This February, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced they had found a skinned wolf carcass dumped on the side of a nearby highway. Another ongoing federal investigation of two wolf killings was sparked in 2008, when a bloody wolf pelt was discovered in a leaking FedEx package sent to Canada.

Since Aldo Leopold, patriarch of wildlife management, saw the "fierce green fire" die in the eyes of the wolf he shot in early 1900s, we've been trying to figure out how to coexist with wolves in the West.

It's still a work in progress.

Nathan Rice is a HCN intern.

Photo courtesy Conservation Northwest. A yearling gray wolf of the Lookout Pack was captured by remote camera in the Washington Cascades.