Gov. Brian Schweitzer has drawn a bold line on the land, announcing Feb.16 that he is directing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks not to prosecute ranchers who kill wolves that threaten livestock, and directing the department to cull wolves that have impacted elk populations in the Bitterroot Valley.
Schweitzer outlined those policies in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, saying that he is “profoundly frustrated by the lack of any actual results that recognize Montana’s rights and responsibilities to manage its wildlife.”
He added that Montana “has for years done everything that has been asked: adopting a model wolf management plan; enacting enabling legislation and adopting the necessary implementing rules. Our exemplary efforts have been ignored. I cannot continue to ignore the crying need for workable wolf management while Montana waits, and waits, and waits.”
Wolves in the Northern Rockies were removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act by the Department of Interior under the Bush and Obama administrations, but both of those decisions were rolled back by court decisions.
Schweitzer said he is directing Montana game wardens not to prosecute livestock producers “who kill or harass a wolf attacking their livestock” on lands north of Interstate 90, where wolves are as a fully endangered species under the ESA.
“Further, I am directing FWP to respond to any livestock depredation by removing whole packs that kill livestock, wherever this may occur,” he states in the letter.
Lethal wolf control in Montana is currently carried out by Wildlife Services, a federal agency.
“Still further, to protect the elk herds in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley that have been most adversely affected by wolf predation, I am directing FWP, to the extent allowed by the Endangered Species Act, to cull these wolves by whole-pack removal to enable elk herds to recover,” the governor states.
The week before Schweitzer's announcement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released draft Environmental Assessment proposing to allow the state of Idaho or tribes to “lethally take wolves within the “experimental” population area when wolf predation is having an unacceptable impact on wild ungulate populations” in central Idaho’s Lolo Elk Management Zone. The proposal comes in response to a Sept. 24, 2010, request from the state of Idaho to reduce the wolf population in the Lolo Elk Management Zone.
The proposal would allow wolves in that zone to reduce to a minimum of 20 to 30 animals in three to five packs from a current estimated population of 60 to 80 wolves.
Federal law allows greater flexibility in managing wolves populations designated as experimental populations than it does for fully endangered populations, and Schweitzer is angling for a measure in the Bitterroot that is similar to Idaho’s.
“At this point, I can do nothing less and still maintain my commitment as governor to uphold the rights of our citizens to protect their and to continue to enjoy Montana’s cherished wildlife heritage and traditions,” Schweitzer concludes in his letter.