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Representatives of livestock producers, outfitters, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts promised Friday to present a united front with the state of Montana as it moves forward as quickly as possible, on multiple pathways, to try to regain tools needed to control growing gray wolf populations.

Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Bob Lane, FWP attorney, said they’re planning on filing a motion with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn an Aug. 5 U.S. District Court ruling that put wolves in Montana and Idaho back on the list of animals protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. While that appeal is pending — which is expected to take a year or longer — the state also will ask the federal government to issue “take” permits in Montana that would allow for some public hunting.

The state also is considering entering into discussions with plaintiffs in the case over what it would take to return full management of wolves to the state; seek federal legislation to change the status of gray wolves in Montana; and ask Congress to make it clear that delisting of wolves in one state, but not in an adjoining one, is part of the flexibility allowed under the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, officials will ask the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to consider wolves a threatened species rather than endangered in the northern half of Montana, which allows for more management latitude. They’re considered an experimental population in southern Montana, which means wolves can be shot on sight when caught preying on livestock.

Maurier added that what both Montana and Idaho officials probably won’t do is try to convince Wyoming to lift the predator status of wolves in that state, because at a meeting among leaders of the three states Thursday, Wyoming officials made it clear they weren’t planning on making any changes at this time.

“Our intent is to be more aggressive than we have in the past and we’ll see how that works,” Maurier said. “… We are going to work our tails off as long as I’m here to do whatever we can to provide a clear path forward and resolve this problem. If there was a silver bullet we would have used it by now.

“The bottom line is we can’t do it alone … and that’s why we brought you here today.”

While members of the 10 groups at Friday’s meeting agreed with some of the tactics Maurier outlined, many were resoundingly opposed to any type of talks with the 13 environmental organizations that filed the lawsuit to return wolves in Montana and Idaho to the list of endangered species.

“How do you negotiate any kind of settlement with those folks that is binding for any kind of long period of time?” asked David Allen, president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Anyone with a computer, attorney and blog can become an environmental group overnight. What’s to stop that group from becoming another group and suing you?

“… I just figure what’s the point with those folks? They have shown no propensity to sit down and deal like big boys and girls.”

While acknowledging Allen’s point, Maurier added that it doesn’t hurt to at least open discussions.

“It never hurts to talk, maybe for educational purposes, if nothing else,” he said.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which handled the reintroduction of gray wolves into the Northern Rockies ecosystem beginning in 1994, declared in May 2009 that wolves in Montana and Idaho no longer needed federal protection status, and took them off the list of endangered species. As part of the two states’ management efforts, they each held their first-ever hunting season last fall, and wolves that were harassing livestock were able to be shot without permits.

However, Wyoming’s wolf management plan declared them to be predators in most of the state outside of Yellowstone National Park, and allowed them to be shot on sight as long the state retained a minimum population of about 75 animals, or 15 packs of at least five animals each. That wasn’t acceptable to the USFWS, and they remained protected under federal law.

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In his ruling earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy wrote that the wolf population can’t be considered “recovered” and delisted in Montana and Idaho, but not in Wyoming.

Lane said he thinks that argument won’t stand up to an appeal, since wolves are considered only threatened in Minnesota, but endangered in Michigan and Wisconsin. Montana and Idaho will appeal Molloy’s ruling on that basis, he said, but added that if it is remanded back to Molloy, other issues raised by the environmental groups also would need to be resolved, which could take a few years.

That’s why the state and groups will also take their case to Congress, seeking fast-track clarification that partial delisting is allowed under the Endangered Species Act. Both Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Denny Rehberg have announced plans to introduce legislation to give more control of wolf management to Montana. Maurier said those bills probably will be reconciled as they pass through the House and Senate.

Currently, about 1,700 wolves roam throughout Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, eastern Oregon and Washington. Montana is home to about 525 wolves and plans to manage for 400 or more; Idaho has about 835 wolves, with a management goal of 520; and Wyoming has about 320.

Those at Friday’s meeting said wolves have dramatically lowered elk and moose populations in some parts of Montana and are preying in ever increasing numbers on livestock. They fear that as the number of wolves continues to rise, so will conflicts.

“We have screwed around with this far too long,” Allen said.

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

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