Wildlife wars

  • Captive wolverine in Montana's Bridger Mountains.

    Daniel J. Cox/NaturalExposures.com

They've loped to the southern edge of Wyoming's Wind River Range, and straggled into northwestern Colorado. They've filled Montana forests near Missoula, Helena and Bozeman. They've crossed the Idaho Panhandle, padding into north-central Washington and eastern Oregon. And despite disease outbreaks and being shot by the feds for devouring the occasional cow, every year since gray wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies, their numbers have increased. Until now, that is. 

When U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials removed the wolves from the endangered species list and handed management over to Idaho, Wyoming and Montana this spring, they expected the population, which was around 1,500 at the beginning of 2008, to grow to more than 2,000 by this summer. But a recent census suggests there are now only about 1,455 wolves in the ecosystem. The lack of growth could be due to disease, or to the animals filling up the area's available habitat. Some enviros say it could also be the increased killing of wolves under state management. The finding came as the agency, prompted by a recent court ruling, asked to restore endangered species protection to the animals while it reconsiders the population's genetic viability and Wyoming's management plan, which allows wolves to be shot on sight outside of the Yellowstone area.

Wyoming lawmakers are discussing their options -- which could include suing the feds or modifying the state plan so that wolves can't be killed quite so easily -- in an effort to restore state control. But that possibility looks a bit hazy after another court ruling. On Sept. 29, Washington, D.C., District Judge Paul L. Friedman suspended the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's 2007 delisting of the approximately 4,000 gray wolves that roam the states surrounding the Great Lakes. Friedman said the agency failed to show that its decision to simultaneously declare the region's wolves a distinct subpopulation and remove their federal protections was legal under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups say the ruling, coupled with the Northern Rockies wolf decision, should make it harder to strip endangered species protections in a piecemeal way. It could also be a boon to groups suing to restore federal protection to Yellowstone's grizzly bears, which were delisted in 2007.

The wildlife wars don't stop there, though. Environmental groups have hauled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service back into court over its second decision not to extend Endangered Species Act protections to wolverines. After a court order forced it to reconsider the status of the California red-legged frog, the agency released plans to designate 1.8 million acres of critical habitat for the threatened amphibian -- three times more than what had been proposed under the meddling influence of former Interior Department official Julie MacDonald back in 2006. Meanwhile, another species the agency is reconsidering for federal protection is declining in Nevada. Wildlife officials estimate there are 70,000 to 80,000 sage grouse in the state this year, down from 100,000 in 2005.

At least grizzlies appear to be doing well in northwestern Montana's 7.8 million-acre Continental Divide ecosystem, where they are officially listed as threatened. A five-year, $4.8 million federal study released this month estimates that 765 grizzlies now roam the area -- about two and a half times more than previously estimated. The bears have expanded their range 2.6 million acres beyond recovery area boundaries set in 1993. 

At the state level, critters in parts of Colorado and Montana are getting some unprecedented (if still weaker than hoped for) protection from oil and gas development. Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has reworked more than 80 of its rules over the last three months, tentatively passing measures in late September that will, for the first time, require companies to consult with state wildlife officials to minimize drilling's impacts on species like mule deer, elk and sage grouse in sensitive wintering and mating habitat. Companies will also have to clump development to preserve more undisturbed land, and avoid drilling and laying pipelines within 300 feet of cutthroat trout streams, among other rules. Meanwhile, the Montana Oil and Gas Conservation Board forbid roads, drilling, and wellpads within a quarter mile of waterways on 16 new leases on state trust lands along the Yellowstone, Shields and Boulder rivers -- all renowned for their trout fisheries.

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