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Emily Guerin | Sep 06, 2012 06:00 AM

It’s getting harder to be a wolf in the Northern Rockies.

Last spring, a rider on a budget bill took gray wolves off the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana. On Friday, Wyoming joined the club when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services declared the state’s wolf population to be recovered and no longer in need of federal protection. The decision came just in time for the fall wolf hunt, which begins October 1.

Wyoming’s estimated 350 gray wolves will now be managed by the state, as they are in Idaho and Montana. According to Wyoming’s recently-approved management plan, the wolves are still protected in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, wildlife refuges and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Outside of those areas, the plan divides the state into three districts. In the northwest corner, which compromises the majority of gray wolf habitat in state, hunting is limited to the fall and only 52 wolves may be killed. In the remaining 90 percent of the state, where Wyoming Game & Fish estimates only 20-30 wolves live, they can be shot on sight without a license and do not contribute to the quota. Roping a gray wolf

Things get a little tricky in the “flex area” just south of Grand Teton National Park, where wolves can be shot without a license from March to mid-October, but where hunting is regulated the rest of the year.

This complicated arrangement was designed to address concerns that Wyoming’s wolves would be isolated genetically from the rest of the population in Idaho and Montana, undermining the animals’ chances for long-term survival. The “flex area” grants wolves some protection while traveling between states in the fall and winter, according to Wyoming Department Game & Fish spokesman Eric Keszler.

Of course, wolves that attack livestock can be killed whenever, wherever, and those kills do not count towards the 52 wolf total.

Depending on who you talk to, this turn of events is either a tragedy or a cause for celebration.

The official agency reaction bills the de-listing as a “major success story,” according to Dan Ashe, director of USFWS. Wyoming’s governor, Matt Mead, was also supportive of the decision, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership called it a “victory for responsible wildlife management.”

But Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife and former director of USFWS, called the de-listing “a low point in the modern history of wildlife conservation and a stunning move by an administration that vowed to be guided by sound science.”

And Earthjustice, the environmental law firm representing many Northern Rockies conservation groups, plans to send USFWS an intent-to-sue notice, according to The Casper Star Tribune.

Sound familiar? It does to Rocky Barker, an environmental reporter with the Idaho Statesman, who accused the Obama administration of re-playing the endangered species version of Groundhog Day on his blog.

The first time the feds de-listed the gray wolf in 2008, environmentalists sued and U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy re-instated the wolves’ endangered status before the fall hunt could begin, citing concerns over genetic diversity, low population and Wyoming’s management plan.

Then, in the final days of the Bush administration, the federal government attempted to de-list the Northern Rockies’ wolves again (except in Wyoming). The Obama administration halted the proposal, but two months later the Department of the Interior announced it would go ahead with the de-listing.

A month later, Earthjustice filed suit again in an attempt to halt wolf hunts scheduled for that fall in Idaho and Montana. This time, Judge Molloy refused to stop the hunts. But in an August 2010 decision, he re-instated endangered status for the wolves, concluding that the Endangered Species Act did not allow species to be protected in some states but not others.

That brings us to 2011, when Montana’s democratic senator Jon Tester sponsored a rider on a budget bill de-listing (again!) the gray wolf in Idaho, Montana and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah. The rider also prevented the move from being challenged in court. Enviros sued anyway, but lost. (Still confused? An Earthjustice timeline outlines the long history of de-and re-listings and legal challenges.)

What makes last week’s decision important is that Wyoming, the state whose gray wolf management plan has historically been considered inadequate, now has control over its wolves. The major difference between this new management plan and the one Judge Molloy chastised in his 2008 ruling is the “flex area,” which Earthjustice lawyer Jenny Harbine called insufficient protection for the wolves.

“Half of the wolf dispersal through this area occurs outside of the season during which killing is regulated,” she told The Casper Star Tribune, “There are still geographic and temporal deficiencies.”

Depending on how environmentalists respond to the de-listing, we could be in for another ride on the Western wolf-go-round.

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

1887 photo of cowboys roping a wolf in Wyoming courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

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