Gov. Brian Schweitzer's statements notwithstanding, Montana's wildlife wardens aren't preparing for war on wolves any time soon.
On Wednesday, Schweitzer announced he was done waiting for federal permission to manage wolves in Montana. He encouraged ranchers to kill wolves that prey on livestock throughout the state, including the northern portion where federal rules prohibit that. He also told the Associated Press he wanted Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials to start killing wolves that threaten elk herds.
On Thursday, FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said the department was still pursuing a formal request to shoot some wolves in the Bitterroot Mountains, but did not have larger plans.
That involves what's known as a 10-j petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage wolves that are still protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. It would only apply to an area of the Bitterroots along the Idaho border where elk populations have fallen sharply.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chris Tollefson said on Thursday that application was still under review.
"It continues to be a high priority for us, and we continue to proceed on it," Tollefson said of the 10-j application. "We expect to have a draft decision available within the next six weeks."
Schweitzer also encouraged livestock owners throughout Montana to defend their animals against wolves, including those in the northern half of the state. While wolves south of Interstate 90 are considered part of a "experimental, nonessential" population that was transplanted in Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, the packs north of the freeway naturally migrated down from Canada and have a higher level of protection. Ranchers are allowed to shoot threatening wolves in the southern zone, but are not supposed to harm those in the north.
Aasheim said following Schweitzer's announcement, FWP wardens would continue monitoring wolf populations and activity, but would not be investigating livestock depredations in the northern zone.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service will have responsibility for any prosecution in those cases," Aasheim said. "North of I-90, Montana wardens will not be involved in cases where livestock producers kill wolves."
Schweitzer's announcement was similar to a decision by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in October to drop all state efforts on wolf management until the federal government delists the animal.
At Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, spokesman Ed Mitchell said, "I'm not even talking about wolves any more." He referred questions to Gov. Butch Otter's press office.
There, Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said little has changed in Idaho's wolf population or the people shooting at them. He added Otter's announcement has not noticeably changed the state's relationship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In fact, last week, FWS officials released a draft agreement for Idaho's request to have state agents kill wolves along the Montana border.
"Gov. Otter wants this problem resolved as soon as possible," Hanian said. "He is supportive of any congressional fix proposed by our delegation that delists wolves and restores state management, including Congressman Simpson's latest effort."
That refers to Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson's move to reinstate the 2009 wolf delisting rule for Montana and Idaho, as well as proposals by Montana Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg that would remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act jurisdiction or give Montana and Idaho exclusive control of wolves.
On his website, Simpson said "it has been an honor to work with Congressman Rehberg on both H.R. 509 and H.R. 510," but "until that bill can be taken up by the House, I believe we need to take advantage of the opportunity that the CR (continuing resolution) provides to overturn Judge (Don) Molloy's decision." Simpson's amendment would do essentially the same thing as legislation proposed by Montana's Democratic senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester.
Meanwhile, wolf advocates rallied their supporters to oppose the actions. Defenders of Wildlife is one of the lead plaintiffs in the federal court case to keep wolves under Endangered Species Act protection. In Bozeman, Defenders of Wildlife northern Rockies coordinator Mike Leahy said the argument comes down to who has reliable science.
"The federal recovery goals are still at 100 wolves per state, and there's no science behind that," Leahy said. "We would like to see the science updated. Their science is 25 years old. I think hunters and non-hunters alike can agree science ought to govern wildlife management."
Leahy said his organization supported the conventions of what's known as conservation biology, which mathematically calculates the number of individuals in a population necessary for healthy genetics. That number has been estimated for wolves to be 1,500 or more. However, Leahy said there hasn't been current research on wolves in the Northern Rockies to back up that number yet.
"We are not opposing future wolf hunts," Leahy said. "Our priority is to get a science-based threshold for how many wolves have to be maintained for a region. It seems some of the hunting groups have a strong anti-predator bias. They don't want to see good management principles applied to predators. This is not animal rights versus hunters. It's how do we manage predators? Like wildlife, or like pests and vermin to be eliminated? Our goals have always been to have best wildlife management practices applied to wolves the same as elk or any other species."
But it's unlikely that research will be done before Feb. 22. That's when U.S. District Judge Don Molloy has ordered responses due in his Missoula court before he renders a decision on the federal government's wolf delisting efforts.