Friday, May 26, 2006

Montana Governor defends wolf stance

By BRODIE FARQUHAR - Star-Tribune correspondent

RIVERTON -- In full-throated defense of Wyoming’s wolf management plan, Gov. Dave Freudenthal declared Thursday that wolf plans adopted by Idaho and Montana “aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.”

The Democratic governor spoke here before Wyoming Farm Bureau members, a handful of state legislators and county commissioners at the start of a two-day wolf seminar: “Wolves, Wyoming’s Reality.” The seminar features panel discussions by landowners, outfitters, academics, state and federal biologists, lawyers and legislators. There was no representation from conservation groups that support wolves.

Freudenthal noted that the state is headed into the election season, featuring a lot of dancing around controversial issues. “Part of my argument is with the Casper Star-Tribune,” he said, adding that the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper has said that Wyoming should drop its predator status for wolves -- a similar stance to that recently taken by Ray Hunkins, Republican candidate for governor.

Hunkins is scheduled to speak before the same group at 1 p.m. today.

Wyoming is in a standoff over wolves with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which rejected the state’s management plan, largely because it would allow wolves to be shot on sight as “predators” outside Yellowstone National Park and adjacent lands. The federal agency has refused to downgrade Wyoming wolves from Endangered Species Act protection until Wyoming submits a plan that is acceptable to the Department of the Interior, which has already approved wolf management plans from Idaho and Montana.

The governor said Wyoming has already lost the national debate over whether wolves should even be called “predators.” “I knew we were in trouble when I stepped inside a Cracker Barrel store,” the governor said. There, on display and on sale, was a variety of cute, stuffed animals -- including wolves, suitable to put in a baby’s crib. “We’ve lost the larger psychological battle,” Freudenthal said, adding that basic, scientific facts are no longer relevant to people on the West and East coasts.

And the governor said he sees little reason to sit down and talk more with federal officials. He said he has done that, and he’s tired of lectures about why Wyoming needs to change its wolf management plan. “All we hear is dissertations from them as to why we need to change. I’ve been through a multitude of those meetings,” including one where Interior Secretary Gale Norton was in his office, he said.

Freudenthal said he didn’t know if that will change if Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne becomes Interior secretary. “I won’t hang my hat on that thin reed,” Freudenthal said. Ultimately, and probably in federal court, the governor said, he wants a hearing on the scientific merits of the state's position.

He said the state already has scientific approval for the plan, as 10 of 11 scientists selected by the Fish and Wildlife Service gave the Cowboy State a thumbs up on its wolf management plan. The governor said that scientific stamp of approval has been overridden by politics.

He noted that Paul Hoffman, the former Cody Country Chamber of Commerce executive who's now an Interior Department official, told Wyoming legislators that they could have a large "take" on wolves through hunting, but only within the context of calling them trophy game animals and issuing hunting licenses. That just doesn’t make sense, Freudenthal said, because trophy animals are managed so there is a continual supply of the animals, and that isn’t what he or the Legislature wants with wolves.

He said that any hope of keeping wolf populations down, so as to minimize conflicts with livestock, are illusory. Wyoming needs additional tools and tactics, such as aerial gunning, to control wolves, he said. Under a trophy animal approach, Wyoming couldn’t use aerial gunning, he said.

Freudenthal said the Interior position is political, not scientific. He said he’d like the same flexibility in managing wolves as Wyoming has with managing air pollution under the federal Clear Air Act. “I don’t like being in conflict with feds, but I don’t want to be governor when we just roll over," he said.

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