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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Wednesday that gray wolves in Montana and Idaho, as well as in portions of eastern Oregon and Washington and north-central Utah, will be formally removed from the list of endangered and threatened wildlife today.

The federal government also is proposing to delist gray wolf populations in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, saying they’re also biologically recovered.

“This is a tremendous success story for the Endangered Species Act. It was just 16 years ago that gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, and now populations in the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes are biologically recovered,” Salazar said during a conference call with reporters. “It’s time to return their management to the states that are prepared to manage them.”

While public comment will be taken on the Western Great Lakes region’s proposed delisting, that won’t take place for the Rocky Mountain population because the Department of Interior is simply reinstating the terms of a 2009 rule — in which a public comment period was held — that removed their federally protected status, as directed by Congress in April.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, promised to challenge the delisting again, saying his organization expects to file a lawsuit today saying Congress’ action is unconstitutional.

“Congress can change any law, but what they did here is not amend the Endangered Species Act, but reinstated the delisting and said it couldn’t be challenged in court,” Garrity said. “They can’t both be members of Congress and judges too; they can’t decide what is legal.”

Salazar noted that the delisting in the Rocky Mountains makes moot a request by Montana officials to allow them to remove 18 of about 30 wolves east of the Idaho border in the Bitterroot Valley, where elk populations have dropped significantly in part due to wolf predation.

It also will allow Montana and Idaho to institute a wolf hunting season this fall. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing to allow up to 220 of the known 566 wolves in the state to be shot by hunters, and will discuss that at the FWP Commission meeting in Helena on May 12. Idaho state biologists are expected to present options in July, with the Idaho Fish and Game Commission possibly adopting a harvest strategy at its meeting in August.

FWP Director Joe Maurier said he doesn’t anticipate any early hunts to remove some of the wolves in the Bitterroot, especially since many are parenting new pups.

“There was a spring wolf hunt bill and the governor did veto that, so we are waiting to make sure that it sticks and isn’t overridden,” Maurier said. “The problem we have is by the time that unfolds and if we put a spring hunt before the commission, it would probably be too late for that hunt. Besides, it’s only a few months away from the fall hunt. So in the meantime we’ll continue our normal depredation practice.”

As part of Montana’s wolf management plan, which was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wolves can be shot if they’re killing or threatening dogs or livestock, or if authorized by FWP to resolve wolf/livestock conflicts.

At least 566 wolves inhabited Montana at the end of 2010 in about 108 packs, and to avoid relisting, Montana must manage them in a manner that guarantees a minimum of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. The USFWS will monitor wolf populations in the Northern Rockies for at least five more years.

“As with other delisted species, we will be applying the Endangered Species Act’s post-delisting monitoring requirements to ensure that wolf populations remain robust, while under state wildlife management,” said Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes.

More than 1,650 gray wolves now inhabit the Northern Rockies, after being trapped, hunted and poisoned to near extirpation in the early 1900s. They were listed as endangered species in 1978 across all of the lower 48 states and Mexico, except in Minnesota where the gray wolf was classified as threatened.

At least 4,100 wolves now roam throughout the Western Great Lakes region.

Gray wolves were naturally moving into the Northern Rockies from Canada when their numbers were bolstered by their capture and release into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

They will remain under federal protection in Wyoming until that state comes up with a management plan that is approved by the USFWS.

The Department of Interior also is going to take a look at language included in the Endangered Species Act that involves whether they can be removed from the list of protected species along state boundaries. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled in August 2010 that wording in the Act doesn’t allow that; Hayes said they’ll look at changing it to allow delisting if a species is considered recovered within a “significant portion of its range.”

“Do you look biologically at the range regardless of geographic lines or take a state-by-state approach?” Hayes asked rhetorically. “We will put out proposed guidance — it’s not ready yet — but our inclination is to use the biological approach rather than state borders.

“Wolves do cover a lot of territory, so if you identify the range and … delist them in that range, then you don’t get to those questions about if a wolf in state XYZ can be delisted or not.”

He said the public will have opportunities to comment on that guidance when it’s ready.

Salazar said he is convinced that their delisting is warranted, especially after talking to Ed Bangs of Helena, who was in charge of the reintroduction and recovery effort for the USFWS.

“Two years ago I had an hour with Ed Bangs, who knows more about wolves than anybody on this planet,” Salazar said. “He has no doubt that wolves are recovered, yet because of the way the Act worked, it was very difficult for us to implement that program.”

One other step Salazar is exploring is whether to revise the range of the gray wolf by removing all or parts of 29 eastern states, due to newer information indicating that the gray wolf did not historically occur in those states.

The federal government also will consider what the appropriate entity is and listing status of wolves in the Pacific Northwest and Southwest, as well as seek information on a newly recognized species, the eastern wolf — or Canis lycaon — throughout its range in the United States and Canada. The service is seeking public comment as part of this process.

The proposed rule to remove wolves in the Western Great Lakes from the ESA, as well as the final rule reinstating the 2009 final delisting rule for the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS as directed by the 2011 Full-Year Appropriations Act, will be published in the Federal Register today.

Written comments on the proposed rule for wolves in the Western Great Lakes may be submitted by going through the federal rulemaking portal online at www.

regulations.gov and following the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. [FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029]. People also can send comments to Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. [FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029], Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA 22203. Emails or faxes will not be accepted.

Comments must be received on or before July 5. The service will post all comments on www.regulations.gov.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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