CHEYENNE, Wyo. - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday released a plan for removing wolves from endangered species status in Wyoming that would codify a compromise between protections in the Yellowstone region and allowing wolves to be shot on sight elsewhere in the state.
The draft plan posted online and set for publication in the Federal Register on Wednesday opens the way for Wyoming's wolves to be removed from the endangered list as soon as next summer, said Michael Thabault, assistant regional director for ecological services for the Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain Prairie Region.
The proposal follows a delisting framework that Fish and Wildlife and Wyoming officials agreed to last summer after months of negotiations.
"We've obviously put a little bit more meat on the bone from the principle of the agreement," Thabault said. "But substantively it's the same."
New details spell out plans for genetic testing of wolves and how the state would permit the killing of wolves that have killed livestock, he said.
Wolves have been controversial in Wyoming since their reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s. They have proliferated: About 300 wolves live in Wyoming and some 1,600 live across the region now.
Wyoming's proposal to classify wolves as trophy game subject to regulated hunting in northwest Wyoming - and as predators that could be killed on sight elsewhere - hung up delisting in the state.
Wolves in Montana and Idaho were delisted in April through a congressional rider drafted by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
A coalition of wolf advocates challenged the rider in court, claiming it was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers doctrine. Molloy upheld the rider as a legitimate congressional action, although he wrote he found the maneuver "a disrespect for the fundamental idea of the rule of law."
The wolf advocates appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear the case Nov. 8. The 9th Circuit also allowed several wolf-hunting supporters to participate, including the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Gov. Matt Mead said the Wyoming proposal is an "important step" and shows that Fish and Wildlife is following through on its commitment to turn wolf management over to Wyoming.
"I look forward to working with the Wyoming Legislature to keep us moving towards having control of a species that has such a significant impact on the state," Mead said in a news release.
The Wyoming Legislature would need to approve the plan first. The full Legislature is scheduled to meet in February.
The plan also will go through a 100-day public comment period starting this week and ongoing scientific peer review. Delisting is unlikely before this summer but will occur no later than a year from now, Thabault said.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said the plan's release showed the federal government is moving "expeditiously" on Wyoming wolves. An environmental group criticized the plan, saying the predator status outside Yellowstone would impede wolf migration to the south.
"From our perspective it's once again an example of the Fish and Wildlife Service stepping away from larger recovery of wolves in the West," said Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity. "This is going to make it incredibly difficult for wolves to get to extensive habitat in Colorado and make a comeback there as well."
The key point is that the plan offers enough protection to maintain a viable wolf population in Wyoming, said Chris Tollefson, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman in Washington, D.C.
"We've got the core habitat protected and this is really, in our minds, going to ensure that wolves remain off the endangered species list," Tollefson said. "And I think that is everybody's goal."
Wolves would be fully protected in Yellowstone National Park and other national park lands in northwest Wyoming. Elsewhere in that corner of the state, they would be classified as a trophy game animal open to regulated hunting part of the year by people with hunting licenses.
The federal delisting plan includes a "flex zone" in southern Teton County where wolves would be classified as predators part of the year and as trophy game during the rest of the year.
The Missoulian contributed to this story.