Wolves Are Regional Creatures
So Manage Them Regionally, Not State by State
BY BOB BROWN & DAN KEMMIS
If things had gone according to plan, Montana's wolf hunting season would have opened in the backcountry on September 15, and in other areas of the state on October 1. Idaho and Wyoming had planned similar seasons. Those plans came to a screeching halt on July 18, though, when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granted a preliminary injunction restoring federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for wolves in all 3 states while a lawsuit brought by environmental groups is pending.
That suit seeks to overturn the federal government's February 2008 decision to remove wolves in the Northern Rockies from the endan-gered species list. The delisting decision left further wolf recovery to the 3 states, using the management plans (including the hunting seasons) which the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had approved.
The environmental groups that sued to overturn the delisting decision had argued, among other things, that recovery sufficient for delisting requires interbreeding of separate wolf populations in each of the three states. Finding that "genetic exchange has not taken place," Molloy ruled that the planned hunts, along with state rules allowing wolves to be killed for livestock attacks, would delay the interbreeding and do "irreparable injury" to the wolf populations.
The FWS had originally rejected Wyoming's "dual status" management plan, which treated the wolf as both a game animal and, in much of the state, as a predator, subject to being killed at any time. FWS later accepted the plan in spite of that provision. "Armed with the same information," Molloy wrote, " the agency flip-flopped without explanation."
This led the Idaho Statesman to editorialize: "Blame it on Wyoming. Idaho's estimated 1,000-plus wolves are back under federal control largely because Wyoming has written a faulty plan for handling its own wolves."
Blaming Wyoming is certainly understandable, and plenty of folks in Idaho and Montana are doing just that. Emotionally satisfying as it may be, however, blaming Wyoming doesn't get us an inch closer to what should be everyone's objective: a sound wolf management system in local rather than federal hands. Frustrating as Judge Molloy's decision may be to many who share that objective, it actually creates an opportunity for these three states to take a more promising approach to wolf management. It's time now to consider an interstate compact that would allow the 3 states to manage the wolves as they need to be managed: as a regional population, not as 3 separate state populations.
Wolves are intelligent animals, but they have yet to grasp the significance of the invisible boundaries that humans have drawn across their habitat. By the nature of the beast, its territory is bioregional. To that extent, the FWS has been correct in insisting that effective management plans be in place across the bioregion before delisting can occur. Judge Molloy took that idea a step further in holding that cross-boundary, region-wide interbreeding must be a condition of delisting.
Given the inescapably regional nature of the problem, the solution should be no less regional. And that's exactly the kind of problem that interstate compacts are designed to address. The classic case is water management. Because rivers are no better respecters of state boundaries than wolves, states sharing rivers have routinely entered into interstate river compacts. Montana and Wyoming did just that back in 1950 when they negotiated (along with North Dakota) the Yellowstone River Compact.
Wildlife is also a common subject of interstate compacts. All 3 of the Northern Rockies states are signa-tories of the Interstate Wildlife Vio-lator Compact, which commits member states to suspend the hunting licenses of anyone whose privileges have been yanked in another state. Regional management of border-defying critters also lends itself to agreements like the Atlantic Salmon Compact.
Negotiating a compact among our three states would not be easy, but if we're serious about wanting to put wolf management in western hands, we can meet that challenge. Then, with bipartisan support from our congressional delegations, we could also meet the challenge of congressional approval, which the U.S. Constitution requires for interstate compacts.
Judge Molloy has emphasized that any delisting must satisfy "the intent of Congress as stated in the Endangered Species Act." The beauty of a solid, responsible compact is that it could contain a congressional finding that the compact satisfies congressional intent with regard to the ESA, thus eliminating the one bugbear that could continue to generate litigation for decades. More important, such a compact would enable us to manage wolves as the regional creatures they are.
Bob Brown and Daniel Kemmis are both Senior Fellows at The University of Montana's O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. Brown is a former Republican President of the Montana Senate and Secretary of State; Kemmis is a former Democratic Speaker of the House and Mayor of Missoula.