Monday, April 10, 2006

Costs climb as Wyoming wolf suits continue

By JARED MILLER - Casper Star-Tribune

CHEYENNE, Wyo. -- Wyoming's wolf-management lawsuit turns two years old this month, and costs are mounting. The price tag so far totals between $20,000 and $30,000, state Attorney General Pat Crank said. It cost about the same amount for state lawyers to craft a separate petition that asks the federal government to lift federal protection for wolves, Crank said.

Despite a significant stumble last week in federal appeals court, supporters of the lawsuit, which aims to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt Wyoming's embattled wolf plan, say they're still confident. Some -- including Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo. -- also are optimistic that Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne could inject a new shot of wisdom and experience that might help broker an out-of-court resolution if he becomes Interior secretary. After a meeting with Kempthorne last week, Thomas told a Washington, D.C., reporter that Kempthorne thinks the standoff over wolves is "solvable."

The cost of doing business

In an interview last week, Crank said the state could spend $20,000 to $30,000 more on wolf litigation if the Fish and Wildlife Service denies the petition to ease federal protection. The deadline for a decision is July 15. "I would expect that if they don't accept our petition, we will probably have to file another lawsuit," Crank said. Crank referred to the expenses as "a cost of doing state business" and said a more precise accounting is not available because his office does not calculate costs on a lawsuit-by-lawsuit basis.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal last week said he believes Wyoming residents want state government to pursue the wolf issue, and he's comfortable with the cost of litigation. Freudenthal, an attorney himself, added that the state incurred the bulk of its expenses at the district-court level and that future litigation should be less costly. "I think the state needs to pursue all the avenues it can to resolve this," Freudenthal said.

Raising funds

Another group involved with the lawsuit on the state's side declined to disclose how much it has spent on the case. The coalition of Wyoming agricultural, sportsmen, predator control and county government groups known collectively as the Wolf Coalition raised money for a similar lawsuit that the courts eventually combined with the state's lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the group, lawyer Harriet Hageman of Cheyenne, said she did not know how much money the group had raised and it would be a breach of attorney-client privilege to provide the figure if she did. Jim Magagna, an executive of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, a member of the Wolf Coalition, said he felt uncomfortable divulging the group's financial information.

Abigail Dillen, a lawyer with Bozeman-based Earthjustice, said it would be impossible to calculate how much money her organization has raised for the wolf case. Dillen represents the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, which intervened on the side of the federal government in the lawsuit. The group's budget is composed of donations that are not earmarked for any single cause, and Earthjustice has not collected fees from either of the clients, Dillen said.

A new perspective

Sen. Thomas' belief that Kempthorne, as Interior secretary, could speed the wolf standoff down a new path got a cool reception from some players in the debate. "I think Wyoming is the problem, not the leadership," Earthjustice's Dillen said.

Magagna of the Stock Growers Association said it's at least worth engaging Kempthorne in a dialogue about the issue. "It will be interesting to at least hear about Kempthorne's perspective on how Wyoming's plan would work," Magagna said.

Hageman, of the Wolf Coalition, said she's "optimistic about anyone who will come in and talk about these things."

No 'final action'

Wyoming sued the federal government in April 2004 after the Fish and Wildlife Service released a letter saying it didn't like the state's wolf management plan. The agency objected to Wyoming's classification of wolves outside the Yellowstone area as predators that could be shot on sight. U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson dismissed the lawsuit a year ago, concluding it was not valid because the letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service was merely a preliminary step in the process and did not constitute a "final action." The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal Tuesday.

The defeat means that even though wolf numbers in the three-state recovery zone far exceed the benchmark set when Canadian gray wolves were introduced in 1995, the federal government will not lift the animals' protected status.

Montana's and Idaho's wolf management plans have been approved. But acceptable plans from all three states are required before wolves can be delisted. In the meantime, the wolf population continues to grow. The population in the three-state area could reach 1,000 this summer, including more than 250 in Wyoming, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The target population number when wolf introduction began 10 years ago was around 300.

'The perfect test case'

While Wyoming waits for an answer to its delisting petition, those on both sides of the debate are casting their gazes to Montana and Idaho. Those states already have assumed management of wolves within their borders, but no one knows how far state control extends. The first major test is already under way. Idaho -- with Kempthorne as governor -- last week formally asked the federal government for authority to kill wolves believed to be decimating elk along the Montana border.

The unprecedented request to kill animals listed as endangered is under review by the federal agency. Wyoming officials say wolves are having a similarly harsh impact on elk herds in the state's northwestern corner. "We're in the situation where we have the perfect test case in front of us," Hageman said.

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