It’s a new year but many old wildlife battles will simply rewind.
Despite last minute efforts in Congress, the Rocky Mountain gray wolf issue remains a central polarizing issue around which so many environmental debates in the West revolve.
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy’s decision to return wolves to the endangered species list in 2010 sent the issue where environmentalists fear most, to Congress. When the Obama administration could not cut a deal with Idaho and Wyoming the uncertainty rolled into the new year.
Wolf advocates now must decide if they can compromise enough to quickly reach a court settlement. A deal could prevent an unprecedented congressional delisting that threatens to weaken the most powerful environmental law ever written, the Endangered Species Act.
Any deal they like will be bitterly opposed by Idaho, Wyoming and probably Montana even as it returns management to the states. Environmentalists also have to cut a deal for the Midwest where the Obama administration has once again proposed delisting.
There will be some efforts to remove wolves from the Endangered Species list nationwide that I suspect will fail but cause some predictable fireworks.
The Forest Service will have to resolve the eight appeals filed against Payette National Forest Supervisor Suzanne Rainville’s decision to end sheep grazing on 70,000 acres of national forest lands to protect bighorn sheep.
The bighorn issue has been a failure of collaboration up to this point with the Idaho Legislature undercutting Gov. Butch Otter’s half-hearted collaborative process. With more than 1,000 bighorns in 11 herds west wide dying of pneumonia in 2010 the issue has grown into one of the major ones for fish and wildlife agencies.
Efforts to suppress the link between the mixing of domestic sheep with bighorns and disease have failed as the power of woolgrowers has waned except perhaps in Idaho. But there remains hope among some of the people on both sides of the debate who are still talking that research may find a way to reduce bighorn deaths.
Grizzly bears remain listed in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem after another Molloy decision. That has prompted the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to seek limits on the expansion of the population, in part because of the backlash from wolves.
But grizzlies will travel. As the habitat in Yellowstone fills up and the whitebark pine food base disappears because of climate change, bears will leave. Idaho will have no choice but to protect the bears that range into Italian Peaks, the Lemhi Mountains and perhaps into the central Idaho wilderness.
Lawsuits over the decision to preclude listing of sage grouse will continue to give energy developers across the West fits. But whatever happens, protecting the critical areas the bird and other sagebrush-dependent species need will dictate where everything from transmission lines to solar plants and wind farms will be built.
Finally, Columbia salmon numbers are going to drop in 2011, the latest surveys show. How much they drop will dictate whether the fish that define the character of the Pacific Northwest will become a major political issue again soon or not.
Judge James Redden is expected to make his final, final decision this spring and that will also tell how this issue will play.