Would Washington legislature try to ease protection of gray wolves?

Politicians in the Northwest have been trying for some time to free the states of the burden of obeying Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf. Now, bills in Olympia would give the legislature a chance to play to the anti-wolf crowd.

Crosscut archive image.

A gray wolf in Pend Oreille County, Washington.

Politicians in the Northwest have been trying for some time to free the states of the burden of obeying Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf. Now, bills in Olympia would give the legislature a chance to play to the anti-wolf crowd.

In these hard economic times, when many Americans are trying to keep the proverbial wolf from the door, some of their fellow citizens in elected office are trying just as hard to keep the real wolf away from the woods, the range, and the Endangered Species list.

Maybe they're angling for the Little Red Riding Hood vote.

The governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, has publicly encouraged ranchers to shoot wolves, announced that the state would no longer investigate wolf deaths north of Interstate 90, and told Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to shoot wolves that have preyed on elk in the Bitterroot Valley.

The governor of Idaho, Butch Otter, had already announced that Idaho would no longer help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manage wolves. If the feds want someone to investigate wolf killings or monitor wolf populations in Idaho, they have to do it themselves.

It's hard not to catch a whiff of culture wars in all this. And it may be fair to point out that in the upper Midwest, which has more wolves living in less territory, there hasn't been as much fuss.

Congress, now that it has averted an immediate government shutdown, may consider a continuing budget resolution cooked up by House Republican leaders, that includes language which would "delist" gray wolves in Montana and Idaho, as well as eastern Washington and Idaho — and would make that delisting unreviewable by the courts.

The part about the courts is crucial. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already tried delisting wolves in those states. In 2009, it issued an order de-listing gray wolves in all of those states. Last year, a federal district judge vacated the order, saying it violated the Endangered Species Act. The losing side — the feds, plus the states and hunting groups that intervened on their side, have appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit. No one expects a decision before next year — if then.

The government initially tried to delist all wolves in the northern Rockies, including the main populations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. All three states had drawn up management plans. Wyoming's was clearly inadequate. Conservationists got an injunction against delisting,. The government subsequently asked for and got a voluntary remand so that it could revise the proposal. When the feds tried again, they left Wyoming's wolf population on the list.

But that federal approach wouldn't fly, either. “The record in this case implies that the Service tried to find a pragmatic solution to the legal problem raised by the inadequacy of Wyoming's regulatory mechanisms.” wrote U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy wrote. However, he wrote, “[e]ven if the Service's solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at its heart a political solution that does not comply with the ESA.”

The problem for the judge was that the "Endangered Species Act does not allow the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to list only part of a 'species' as endangered, or to protect a listed distinct population segment only in part as the Final Rule here does. . . [T]he legislative history of the Endangered Species Act . . . supports the historical view that the Service has always held, the Endangered Species Act does not allow a distinct population segment to be subdivided.”

Reportedly, the federal government has conferred with the governors of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming about delisting, but the governors haven't agreed on an approach.

Listed or not, some people don't need much encouragement to go out and kill wolves. “Critics of federal wolf policies appeared emboldened by [Schweitzer 's] . . . statements,” The Associated Press reported. “Robert Fanning, who heads a group that advocates protecting elk herds around Yellowstone National Park from wolves, sent out an e-mail urging Montana residents to 'lock and load and saddle up while there is still snow on the ground.' "

And you needn't go all the way to the Rockies to find that attitude. Craig Welch has reported in The Seattle Times that poachers in this state may already have bagged four members of the breeding Lookout pack that had just established itself in the Methow Valley. The Lookout pack may not survive. “The celebratioin of [wolf] recovery has turned into a dirge for poaching,” says Conservation Northwest executive director Mitch Friedman.

His group has announced that it will partner with the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife to bump up the reward money for citizens who help catch poachers. A citizen can now be paid up to $7,500 for information that leads to the conviction of anyone who kills a gray wolf in Washington, and up to $5,000 for the conviction of anyone who kills a grizzly bear, wolverine, lynx, or fisher. The state's reward had been a meagre $500.

Conservation Northwest is also lobbying in Olympia against House Bill 1109, which will get a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources on Friday (March 4). The bill would give the legislature a chance to vote on the state Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, which the Department of Fish and Wildlife has been developing since 2007. The draft plan has already gone through peer review, public review, and a dozen public meetings. The plan and a final EIS are scheduled to go before the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in August.

It's not the wackiest of the wolf bills offered this session. Invoking the “[r]ights retained by the people in the 9th amendment to the United States Constitution; and [p]owers reserved to the states in the 10th amendment to the United States Constitution,” a different bill would have challenged “the authority of the United States and of congress under the United States Constitution . . . to: (a) Impose wolves on the people and lands of Washington; (b) Protect wolves." That is the same kind of argument that some have raised against Obamacare: if a state doesn't like a federal law, it can just opt out. That was a plausible argument before the Civil War. But the war seemed to have settled it, once and for all. Legally, it has. But in the world of demagoguery, the idea of nullification is alive and well.

The bill's main sponsors are also the main sponsors of HB 1109. But 1109 doesn't stand on any such fanciful constitutional ground.

What's so bad about it? “Why would they want this other than to be able to veto this deliberative process?” Friedman asks. He says that in terms of current politics, “the biggest problem is the reaction to the [Malloy] ruling in the Rockies.”

Freidman sees HB 1109 and other wolf bills as opportunistic playing to the base that “some politicians just can't resist.” He figures that if push came to shove, conservationists could defeat the bill on the floor of the House, but “we don't want wolves to be made a football.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.