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On Monday, according to Idaho Reporter, Gov. Butch Otter will be in Denver to talk wolves with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Governors of Wyoming and Montana. A legal morass and election-year political grandstanding have made a mess of  wolf management in the northern Rockies, and it certainly needs some high-level discussion.

It isn’t clear what Secretary Salazar will be bringing to the table Monday, but the meeting gives Gov. Otter the best opportunity to reverse his pre-election decision to no longer manage wolves in Idaho. Otter’s nonsensical decision, issued in the heat of his re-election campaign, is almost certain to be reversed. But the question is what political cover will Salazar provide to Otter in order to do so sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, the stalemate is probably doing everyone an ecological favor. Without a public hunt this year, the wolf population has an opportunity to create the interconnectedness and genetic diversity to more firmly establish the species’ recovery once and for all. Meanwhile, in the Idaho panhandle at least, the elk hunting is actually improved.  Wolves have evidently driven a healthy elk herd from the upper St. Joe to the closer-in Coeur d’Alene forests, where more hunters are being more successful in hunting more elk.

We’re hoping that some semblance of sanity will reign on Monday.  It is past time to settle the issue. Otherwise, long-running lawsuits, long-shot legislation, and ridiculously overheated rhetoric will continue to be the northern Rockies substitute for reasonable wolf management.

(Also worth reading: George Wuerthner on livestock predation. Can ranchers really expect a predator-free landscape?)

UPDATE 11/29Here is the Spokesman-Review’s AP report on how the meeting went. Nothing resolved, they “discussed a path forward,” but it seems Wyoming may still be a problem.

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Leave it to Butch Otter to actually follow through on what should have been an empty threat. Today, Butch Otter decided to end Idaho’s role in wolf management. For the time being, at least. Unless it’s a purely political move, the directive is completely baffling, no matter which side of the debate you’re on.

Even the most vehement anti-wolf partisan needs to ask some serious questions: Now that Idaho is officially not dealing with the wolf problem, what leverage does it have in negotiating terms of future wolf management? What do Idaho ranchers do while the state officially ignores legitimate management needs? Wait for the federal agents to help? Will federal enforcement be less restrictive than the state’s?

Instead, the decision appears to be a cynical political move two weeks before an election. On twitter, at least, the official state announcement and the official Otter campaign announcement appeared to be simultaneous.

This isn’t leadership. It does nothing to resolve the impasse. And it will simply muddle the issue for the foreseeable future. Is this an appeal to the base? A need to close an “enthusiasm gap”? Or is it that the unthinking anti-federal-government vote must be bigger than we thought.

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The long-awaited Endangered Species Act decision on wolves from U.S. District Judge Molloy in Missoula was released yesterday. The reaction was immediate and occasionally over the top:

Wolves go back on the list. — Missoulan (Note: a copy of the actual opinion is linked from this article)

Idaho Fish and Game is “very disappointed.” — IDFG

Governor Otter is “thoroughly disappointed and frustrated “– via CDAPress

NRDC, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to protect the wolves is “thrilled with today’s ruling, but now it’s really time to update the recovery standards and come up with a plan that ensures the recovery of wolves in the Northern Rockies over the long term.” — NRDC

No middle ground? And what about Wyoming? — Rocky Barker

Wyoming doesn’t care, and no settlement talks either. — Spokesman Review

UPDATE 8/7: Not-very-promising Wyoming perspectives. — Casper Star-Tribune

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KEA member and sometimes volunteer Rich Hurry emailed this account from the federal court hearing yesterday in Missoula regarding the de-listing of wolves under the Endangered Species Act. In his account, Rich, who is very much a wolf advocate, suggests some important lessons for both sides of the debate.

I attended Judge Molloy’s hearing in Missoula, MT yesterday about whether the gray wolf was improperly de-listed from the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.  (For a accurate summary of some of the proceedings, see this article in the Missoulan.)

 First, let me say that listening to the oral arguments presented by both sides of this litigation was very informative and interesting.  Judge Molloy instructed each side to restrict their comments to five aspects of the legality of Fish and Wildlife Services’ de-listing wolves in Montana and Idaho, while keeping them listed in Wyoming. For the most part, each side stuck to this theme.  Most interestingly, the Judge frequently interrupted both sides’ attorneys during their orations to ask questions.  His questions were probing and displayed a deep knowledge of the minute facets of the legal framework surrounding this case.  My take is that he questioned the defendants (US F&WS, Montana, and Idaho) far more aggressively than the plaintiffs, environmental groups represented by Earthjustice

 Several things struck me from sitting in the very first row behind the plaintiff’s attorneys:

 1.  The plaintiffs’ attorneys were extremely knowledgeable about all the subtle nuances and characteristics of this case. It was apparent that they had spent literally weeks poring over every possible source of information about this case. Listening to the secondary attorneys kibitzing among themselves and were seated directly in front of me, they had rehearsed every phrase and legal construction to their satisfaction before EarthJustice’s lead attorney, Doug Honnald, used them in his remarks.  Honnold performed a careful analysis of the exact language of the Endangered Species Act and teased out those words and phrases which supported his case.  He responded positively to the Judge’s inquiries and never was stumped for an answer.

 2.  The defendants appeared less well prepared. Their lead attorney, US Dept of Justice attorney Mike Eitel, who had argued this case at the last hearing in front of Judge Molloy, appeared inarticulate, stumbled on questions, mumbled, and gave a less than inspiring or informative defense of the US F&WS’s actions. He wilted under questioning by the judge and it appeared the judge gave up on pursuing further questions. His co-counsel from Montana, Bob Lane, similarly gave a rambling and barely audible oration, which basically said Montana loves wolves and would never allow their numbers to drop below the federal baseline of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves.  Idaho’s solicitor, Steven Strack, was much more polished and gave a much better defense of Idaho’s record regarding wolves.  He was smooth, perhaps because the judge did not ask him any questions. 

 3.  My biggest take away from this experience is how important it is to me (and perhaps other wolf advocates) to become much more knowledgeable in the facts and nuances of all aspects regarding wolves.  I was astonished at how much I, a presumably well-informed consumer of news about wolves, did not know but learned from listening to the oral arguments yesterday.  I think anyone who endeavors to advocate for wolves must go beyond “wolves are nice and good for the environment” to educating themselves on fundamental issues such as:

     a.  Genetic Connectivity between wolf packs in a “distinct population segment“–itself a term with powerful legal ramifications from the ESA.  Become familiar with the various peer studies and research on the rocky mountain gray wolf in particular.  Delve into them to see what’s been demonstrated and what was not said or proved.  Tie this into the listing/de-listing criteria written into the ESA. 

     b.  The history of listing gray wolves, going back to the 1974, when wolves were listed in all states, except for Alaska and Hawaii.  Trace the legal history of congressional actions that amended the ESA.  Trace the house and senate analyses of these bills.  Trace executive office rules and implementations of these listing decisions.  Actually become an expert in the legal history to date of the ESA so that you can argue persuasively for wolves inclusion on it.  Learn why there was disparate treatment between the listing of the great lakes gray wolf versus northern rocky mountain gray wolf.

     c.  Study what appears to be the only legal precedent germane to yesterday’s hearing:  Defenders v. Norton in the 9th Circuit , concerning de-listing toads in a “distinct population segment” which crossed state boundaries of California and Arizona.  The issue was that US F&WS delisted the toad in one state because their habitat was no longer degraded to the point of threatening their survival, while allowing listing to continue in another state, because this state’s habitat had not recovered.  Defendants claimed this provided precedent for delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho, while keeping them listed in Wyoming.  Plaintiffs claimed it did no such thing.  So, one has to “dig into the stacks”, figuratively speaking, and call up that decision and study it for him/her self.  Have a study session among colleagues after all have read and studied it.  Come to our own conclusions.

 To avoid a potential swarm of protesters, I arrived early and was just the second person on-line in front of the courthouse.  Accordingly, I was able to take a seat once I got inside the courtroom in the first row right behind plaintiffs’ counsel.  It was a great place from which to sit and watch the proceedings.

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We were tracking our Twitter feed today, when an interesting item from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game popped up regarding the extended wolf hunting season in the state.  Last week, the Department issued a “reminder” press release noting that hunters who had purchased a wolf tag for the 2009 wolf hunting season would need to purchase another one for 2010 to hunt in the extended season. Plus, the Department reminded, there’s a hunting limit of one wolf per calendar year, so any wolves killed in this 2010 extended season would disqualify a hunter from the 2010 fall season. If there is one, of course. Oh, and don’t forget to renew your hunting license for 2010 too.

Maybe this bureaucratic juggling prompted by the new calendar year is something that comes naturally to wolf hunters.  But it seems to us that this is perhaps an administrative mess of unintended consequences caused by the hasty extension of the wolf season in Idaho. Or maybe it’s just simply a way to sell more tags to boost revenue.  Either way, and regardless of how one feels about the wolf hunt in Idaho, this doesn’t make much logical sense.

By the way, wolves will be the topic for our noon meeting this Thursday at the Iron Horse, as we kick off the 38th consecutive year year of these public informational gatherings.

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