Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Idaho seeks authority to kill wolves

By CHRISTOPHER SMITH - Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho wildlife officials on Tuesday formally asked the federal government for authority to kill most of the gray wolves in a pack roaming along the Montana border. Idaho believes the pack is decimating an elk herd.

The state submitted a proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that seeks permission to kill as many as 43 of the estimated 58 wolves in a pack roaming the Lolo Pass and Clearwater River Basin area of northcentral Idaho. After eliminating that many wolves in the first year of the plan, state game managers would continue to kill more wolves over the next four years to keep the Lolo pack no larger than 14 to 23 wolves.

Jim Unsworth, the Idaho Fish and Game Department’s wildlife bureau chief, said killing the wolves is critical to rescuing the dwindling wild elk herd in the popular Lolo hunting zone.

“The current predation rate on adult cow elk by wolves is not allowing the herd to bounce back to previous population levels,” he said. “We believe the habitat conditions would allow for higher elk populations if the wolf population was not at its current level.”

Federal officials said they would immediately begin a scientific review of the state’s proposal to determine if the first lethal control of an animal classified under the Endangered Species Act was warranted.

“This is unprecedented but it is not unforeseen,” Jeff Foss, Fish and Wildlife’s Boise field office supervisor, said after meeting with state officials to receive the proposal Tuesday afternoon.

At the urging of Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, now President Bush’s nominee for U.S. interior secretary, the federal government in January turned over to the state day-to-day management of the wolves reintroduced in central Idaho in 1995 as a “experimental, nonessential population” under the Endangered Species Act. Wolves located north of Interstate 90 in the Idaho Panhandle remain classified as an endangered species under the act and are still under the control of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the agreement signed in January by Kempthorne and outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton gave the state primary management responsibility for the estimated 512 gray wolves living south of I-90 in the rugged Idaho Rockies.

The state’s application on Tuesday is the first test of just how far that responsibility extends. Under a rule revised by the Bush administration last year in the Endangered Species Act, the state can ask for the federal government’s permission to kill wolves that are causing “unacceptable impacts” to wild elk, deer and moose. Prior to the 2005 revision, only trapping and relocation of problem wolves was allowed.

Now, the federal agency will review the state’s proposal to determine if the rationale behind the planned wolf killing is scientifically valid, whether the data the state has collected on elk herd numbers justifies wolf removal, how the elk herd’s response to the reduction of wolves will be measured and whether eliminating 75 percent of the pack would put the wolf population below minimum recovery levels.

The federal agency did not say when its review of the Idaho proposal will be complete, although members of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission were told at their meeting last month the process could take several months and would likely result in a federal lawsuit from conservationists who oppose the state’s plan.

Foss said Fish and Wildlife still must determine if the state proposal raises issues that were not addressed in a 1994 federal environmental impact statement on the wolf reintroduction plan. If the agency determines that document does not adequately cover the wolf killing proposal, a supplemental environmental impact statement would be ordered. That process of public meetings, analysis and research could easily take more than a year and would be subject to appeal through an administrative process.

During a state-sponsored Jan. 23-to-Feb. 17 public comment period on the Idaho wolf reduction proposal, more than 42,000 comments from around the world were received. All but 682 were generated by a national campaign by the Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C. based organization that lobbies on behalf of endangered species. All the e-mails generated by the campaign opposed the Idaho plan.

“If the Fish and Wildlife Service does undertake a rigorous, scientific process to peer review this, they will have no choice but to reject this proposal from the state of Idaho,” said Suzanne Stone of Defenders’ Idaho regional office. “The conclusions were reached prior to the state obtaining the data and the data does not scientifically substantiate the conclusions.”

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