Federal officials are likely to remove wolves from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and a small piece of northern Utah this week.
Some environmental groups –including the Defenders of Wildlife – have filed a 60-day notice of their intent to sue to stop the delisting, but unless one of the states, such as Wyoming, decides to go on a wolf killing spree, the groups won’t file their lawsuit until after April 28.
With 1,500 wolves running wild in the recovery area, federal officials and most biologists say the predators are biologically recovered. But some conservation biologists, geneticists and environmental groups say 2,000 to 5,000 wolves are needed in the region for a viable population. They argue that there isn’t enough connectivity between the wolves of the Northern Rockies and the wolves in Canada. Plus the wolves in Yellowstone, they say, are not mixing with the wolves in Idaho, Montana and the rest of Wyoming.
So until the wolf population grows and the states change their wolf plans to require more than the 300 wolves, which has been the recovery goal since reintroduction, these groups oppose delisting.
For many ranchers and others who were involved in the polarized negotiations that led to reintroduction, the raising of the bar for recovery by environmental groups, especially Defenders, sticks in their craw. The man who negotiated for Defenders also doesn’t like it.
No one was more responsible for making the reintroduction of wolves happen politically than Hank Fischer, the former Northern Rockies Director of the Defenders of Wildlife. He was the father of Defender’s successful private compensation program that paid ranchers for losses to wolves.
And he was the point man for the wildlife advocacy group as it prodded political leaders to accept the reintroduction plan. Today he works for the National Wildlife Federation, quietly working to pay ranchers to give up their grazing allotments in areas where their livestock conflict with wildlife.
The federation doesn’t support delisting because Wyoming still treats wolves like vermin in most parts of the states and the Fish and Wildlife Service has approved it. But it has not joined Defenders and others in its lawsuit.
Fischer agrees with his group but he doesn’t agree with the move to raise the recovery goals above what was set in 1994, numbers and plan Defenders backed.
“It’s not like we pulled these numbers out of thin air,” Fischer said. “We got them from the wolf experts of the time. We exceeded those numbers by a great deal.”
At stake, Fischer said, is the credibility of environmentalists who sit down with user groups to negotiate deals to protect their values.
“We did it in good faith and it really undermines credibility when you don’t do what you said,” Fischer said Monday.
When he was going from ranch to ranch, meeting to meeting and congressional office to congressional office for a decade to push reintroduction the plans, wolf opponents held the upper hand. His plans moved forward because thoughtful ranchers and Senators like James McClure sought a way to protect the values of ranchers and hunters while recognizing the values of wolves to Fischer and others.
They lived with the compromise based on the plan presented.
“Now we have the upper hand and we have to show compassion for their needs,” Fischer said.
Suzanne Asha Stone, who now holds Fischer’s job for Defenders of Wildlife, said she doesn’t know what kind of “back room” deal Fischer promised. Defenders’ scientists have long questioned that the recovery goal of 300 wolves in the region was enough, she said.
As genetic science has improved, the evidence more wolves are needed has grown, she said.
“It isn’t about changing the bar it’s about having a viable population of wolves in the region,” Stone said.
Fischer thinks the current population is viable and he's confident it will grow, at least in Montana and Idaho.
I think wolves are going continue to spread and expand their rank," Fischer said. "They’re going to find places they can thrive."