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By EVE BYRON

Independent Record

In a bold move against federal authority of gray wolves in Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer has called for entire packs to be killed in the Bitterroot Valley to protect the dwindling elk population there, and has directed Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to respond to any livestock depredation throughout Montana by removing whole packs that kill livestock.

In addition, Schweitzer told game wardens not to investigate or cite anyone in the northern tier of the state who kills or harasses a wolf attacking their livestock. In the southern half of the state, it’s legal for cattle, sheep and other stock owners to shoot wolves harassing livestock.

In a letter sent to Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar on Wednesday, Schweitzer said he was “profoundly frustrated by the lack of any actual results that recognize Montana’s rights and responsibilities to manage its wildlife.”

“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,” Schweitzer wrote. “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.

“Therefore, I am now going to take additional necessary steps to protect the interests of Montana’s livestock producers and hunters to the extent that I can within my authorities as governor.”

Schweitzer told the Independent Record that it wasn’t any particular incident that prompted his decision; instead, it was the inactivity by Salazar’s department and others during the past decade. He said the orders will be implemented immediately, and added that he doesn’t believe he’s defying federal protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act. Culling the wolves will be done “to the extent allowed” by the act.

“There’s been a lot of motion masquerading as action in Washington, D.C., and we simply need to take action in Montana,” he said. “We are doing things within the laws, according to our attorneys.”

Bob Lane, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks attorney, said the state would need USFWS’ approval to cull the wolves in the Bitterroot.

“(Schweitzer) was expressing frustation to alleviate concerns, but he can’t (cull wolves) without the blessing of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain regional director for Defenders of Wildlife, isn’t so sure about the legality. He believes the governor is making it easier for poachers, who could claim the wolves were killing livestock but in reality were just trying to remove wolves from the landscape.

“I appreciate the governor’s frustration with the wolf issue, but I think he is doing long-term damage to his legacy as a wildlife manager by … telling law enforcement to stand down, and being unnecessarily heavy-handed in eliminating entire wolf populations,” Leahy said. “We’re still reviewing whether he has the legal authority.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can continue to investigate wolf shootings and the federal government can prosecute cases where violations of the Endangered Species Act occur. An official with the U.S. Department of Interior wouldn’t comment on whether the actions ordered by Schweitzer would constitute a violation of the act, but noted that the wolves still fall under its provisions.

“We appreciate the work of the senators and the governor of Montana for continuing to work with us on this important issue,” said Kendra Burkoff, an Interior deputy communications director. “We agree there is an urgent need to find a commonsense solution. Wolves have reached their recovery goals and should be managed by states that have acceptable management programs.

“But the governor’s letter is not the answer.”

Michael Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies — one of 13 groups that successfully sued the USFWS to return wolves to the list of endangered species — said Schweitzer could be putting a large portion of the state’s wildlife funding at risk.

“FWP gets a significant share of their budget from federal excise taxes on many sporting goods,” Garrity said. “If the state of Montana won’t enforce federal laws, the federal government could decide to cut off this funding.

“What the governor is doing directly violates the Endangered Species Act, and he’s violating the memorandum of understanding that Montana signed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is going to make it harder to delist wolves in the future, rather than easier.”

Others praised the governor’s actions. Kim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, was thrilled to hear about his instructions.

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“Awesome. Perfect. Finally,” Baker said from her ranch near Hot Springs, where they’ve lost at least six head of cattle to confirmed wolf depredation in the past few years, and are “missing” about a dozen more. “I think the governor of Montana has gone above and beyond, for the ranchers, the general public and the hunters, to make our state safe.

“For a brief time, we could shoot something that was harassing our livestock, and this is huge for us that we can do it again.”

Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, also was pleased that something is being done to protect elk herds. People are getting whiplash watching wolves be listed, delisted, relisted, delisted and relisted through various court and governmental actions, and Sharpe said it’s time to move forward in a definitive manner.

“I would say it’s a good thing that he’s taking action,” Sharpe said. “The process is moving too slowly to bring it back to state management. Clearly, he’s frustrated and he’s trying to move forward.

“Whether it’s legal or compromises the act or not is another matter.”

Wolves were put on the federal endangered species list in 1974, having almost been wiped out in the northern Rockies by hunting, trapping and poisoning. Between natural migration from Canada and the reintroduction of the species in the mid 1990s near Yellowstone National Park, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon now are home to about 1,700 gray wolves.

They were delisted in Montana and Idaho by both the Obama and Bush administrations, but returned to the list of protected species last August by a federal court judge, who ruled that they can’t be considered recovered in the two states but not in Wyoming.

Montana continues to manage wolves under the agreement with the state, but Idaho has returned those duties — and associated costs — to the federal government. The two states also allowed wolves to be hunted in 2009, to try to keep the population from growing, but the hunts ended when the animals were relisted.

Numerous state and federal elected officials have proposed a variety of bills that would remove wolves from the list.

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

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