Opponents of a federal court decision ordering the protection of wolves have responded with tactics ranging from a suggestion to stake out shelter dogs as wolf bait to pending bills in Congress and appeals of the decision.
With efforts aimed at removing wolves from the Endangered Species Act on the rise, the issue has shifted from the reasoning behind the decision to how opponents can circumvent it.
Separate appeals, united front
The most recent move to restore state management of wolves came in the form of an appeal from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden on Friday, who filed an appeal of U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy's ruling in August to relist wolves under the act.
Their action, undertaken on behalf of the state of Idaho, followed appeals from the state of Montana and from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
"We're all looking for the same thing—state management of wolves," Otter spokesman Mark Warbis said.
After Molloy ruled a Montana gun law unconstitutional on Thursday, Otter accused Molloy of consistently undermining states' rights.
"We're seeing a troubling pattern of behavior here, with Judge Molloy consistently ruling in support of federal control over our land, our resources and our way of life," Otter said.
But wolf advocate Garrick Dutcher, spokesman for the Ketchum-based nonprofit Living with Wolves, accused the governor of having his own political agenda with this appeal.
"This is a last-minute election-year stunt," Dutcher said. "I don't see [the appeal] going through."
A bumper crop of bills
The earliest congressional bill proposed to amend the Endangered Species Act to exclude wolves was introduced on July 30, six days before Molloy's district court ruling. Since then, three more bills have been brought to the House and Senate floors, all of which propose making an exception to the act for wolves.
According to Nikki Watts, spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the congressman is in favor of a not-yet-introduced bill in development from Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont.
The bill, known as the Idaho and Montana Wolf Management Act of 2010, would place wolves in Idaho and Montana under the "exclusive jurisdiction" of the two states.
Though Molloy's ruling stated that wolf populations could not be divided along state lines for the purposes of delisting under the act, this decision was based on an interpretation of the act. Congress could amend the act to redefine the way populations or species could be divided, and an amendment similar to Rehberg's would effectively negate Molloy's ruling.
A bill currently under discussion in the Senate, introduced by Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, both R-Idaho, removes certain parts of the Northern Rockies wolf population from the Endangered Species Act.
The bill would effectively reinstate a plan very similar to what existed before Molloy's ruling, with state management of wolves in Idaho, Montana and all other states in the region where wolves exist—except Wyoming. Wyoming was excluded from the original wolf delisting ruling due to its lack of a federally approved management plan, and Wyoming officials have stated they have no interest in changing their plan to meet the requirements of the federal government.
Risch and Crapo have also co-sponsored a bill introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that simply removes gray wolves from ESA protection.
Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both D-Mont., have also co-sponsored a bill that excludes wolves in Idaho and Montana from the requirements of the act. However, their bill would require the states to have federally approved management plans before state management could go into effect.
Despite that bill's provisions for approval of state management, wildlife advocates worry that it could be the start of a slippery slope that would lead to the act's collapse.
"It opens up a huge potential hole in the Endangered Species Act if every person feels like they can get Congress to make special rules," said Andrew Wetzler, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council's wildlife program.
Wetzler said he doubted the legislation under discussion would be enough to completely undermine the act within a few years, but said such legislation would set a dangerous precedent.
However, Suzanne Stone, northern Rockies representative for the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, said she doubted the act is in serious danger.
"There have been a lot of challenges to the Endangered Species Act in the past, and we have so far been able to protect it from being torn apart," she said. "A lot of people in this country care about our wildlife."
Controlling the protected
With legislation and appeals still pending, states are left with one legal option: managing wolves under the Endangered Species Act's 10(j) provision. The provision allows species in "non-essential, experimental" populations, which includes wolves south of Highway 90 in northern Idaho, to be controlled if they are threatening livestock or ungulate populations such as deer or elk.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game's recently proposed Lolo Region wolf management plan, which calls for the removal of 50 to 80 percent of the wolf population in two elk management regions in northern Idaho, rests on that provision.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not yet approved the plan, but 10(j) also allows wolves to be killed statewide for livestock depredation. At least one hunters' group seems to view this provision as a loophole that would enable it to take matters into its own hands.
An undated letter on the Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife's website from founder Don Peay suggests adopting shelter dogs and buying sheep, staking them out in wolf areas and waiting for the wolves to kill them. Wolves involved in such incidents could then be legally killed by federal agencies.
"When the wolves killed these dogs, [we'd] get the wolves killed," the letter reads.
Idaho hunters may not be eager to follow Peay's advice. Ken Enslinger, spokesman for the Magic Valley Chapter of Idaho Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, dismissed the suggestion entirely.
"That's totally ridiculous," he said.
Peay's letter states repeatedly that the suggestion is not just "idle talk," but pro-wolf groups seem to find the letter as "ridiculous" as Enslinger does.
"I bet the American Humane Society would be totally into that," Dutcher joked. "That's almost not even worth comment."
Steven Silvers, spokesman for the Humane Society, said that the threat of hunters being able to adopt shelter dogs as wolf bait is not terribly serious.
"This sounds like more of a political statement than an actual proposal," Silvers said. "No shelter would let a dog go to any group or organization in the first place, especially one that would use the dogs as bait."
Stone said a similar situation occurred in the Yellowstone National Park area five years ago, when a calf was staked out in a wolf zone and killed. She said the plan failed because the Fish and Wildlife Service found out that the calf had been intentionally abandoned with the intent to get a wolf pack killed.
With appeal and legislative options up in the air, and more unusual 10(j) solutions unlikely to make a lasting difference, advocates and legislators are left still searching for an answer.
"There's been more focus on the fight than there has been on developing a solid science-based wolf delisting plan," Stone said. "We need a good solution."
The key, Stone said, is to bring together all the stakeholders and discuss how to meet the needs of everyone involved.
"It can work," she said, "but people have not given it the chance yet."
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org