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The Planet

PLANET FEATURE: Club Moves to Block Idaho Wolf Plan

As the federal government readies a controversial reintroduction of the gray wolf to central Idaho, conservationists have taken legal action to stop the plan, saying it would disrupt, and perhaps endanger, a process that appears to be occurring naturally.

In May, after more than a decade of planning and often rancorous debate, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its final plan for reintroducing wolves into central Idaho and the Yellowstone region. The Sierra Club, represented by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, has filed a 60-day notice of its intent to sue if the Idaho plan goes forward, arguing that the wolf's protections under the Endangered Species Act would be compromised.

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to designate the Idaho wolves as a "non-essential, experimental" population under an exception provided by the Endangered Species Act. The exception, designed to mollify local residents hostile to the reintroduction of a threatened or endangered species, gives federal officials leeway in their treatment of a particular endangered species.

Using the exception, federal officials have devised a plan for the reintroduced Idaho wolves -- which could be extended to cover those already roaming Idaho -- that offers only "paltry" protections, according to Alex Levinson, the Sierra Club's litigation coordinator.

For example, no critical habitat would be designated -- a key element of the Endangered Species Act strategy for recovering a species -- and protection of wolf dens would be left to the discretion of Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Also alarming to environmentalists is a provision allowing local ranchers and other landowners to kill wolves thought to be threatening livestock. Replacing these wolves would also left to discretion of federal officials.

The agency plans a so-called hard release of 30 to 75 wolves into Idaho in November. Wolves captured in Western Canada will be transported and released in the rugged terrain of central Idaho. Critics say the plan puts the young, non-breeding, unrelated wolves at risk because they will have no opportunity for acclimation or adjustment.

"It's basically an experiment," said Betsy Buffington, associate representative in the Club's Northern Plains field office. "Hard release has produced dismal results where it's been employed in the past, so we have grave concerns that it will work now."

Hard release was used in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce wolves in Michigan in the late 1970s. All of the Michigan wolves died within one year. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have recorded wolf sightings in Idaho with increasing frequency, including the sightings of multiple animals. But the authors of the environmental impact study ignored the information from their own scientists, Buffington said.

Savage Killer or Crucial Predator?

Long portrayed as a ruthless, savage killer, the wolf was systematically eradicated throughout the western United States in the early decades of this century. Reduced to isolated populations in Minnesota and Alaska, the gray wolf has been listed as an endangered species in every other state since 1973.

Both for its symbolic importance and its crucial role as a predator, reintroducing the wolf has been a cherished dream of environmentalists. In the Yellowstone region, at least, a revived wolf population would cap a long crusade to rebuild the natural food chain. The wolf is the only major predator missing from the Yellowstone ecosystem and its absence has thrown the ecosystem out of balance, biologists say.

Unlike the Yellowstone region, wolves are believed to be well-established in Idaho. Sometime in the 1970s, a pack of wolves is thought to have crossed the border into Montana from Canada.

Some of these wolves may have broken away and crossed over into Idaho. Whatever its origins, the wolf's apparent natural recolonization of the state --- some biologists contend that one or two wolf packs may already exist -- could be jeopardized, environmentalists say, if it is stripped of the protections it now has as an endangered species.

Environmentalists have fewer objections to the Yellowstone plan because it would not endanger existing wolves. The Yellowstone wolves would also be treated as a "non-essential, experimental" population, but their release will be carried out under much more favorable conditions than Idaho.

The Canadian wolves introduced into Yellowstone will initially be penned and fed local carrion to acclimate them to the new location, then released into the winter range of herds of elk and bison.

Within the boundaries of national parks and national wildlife refuges, the Yellowstone wolves will be protected as endangered species.

For more information:

Contact Betsy Buffington in the Northern Plains field office at (307) 672-0425.

SOURCE: Neil Hamilton, printed originally in The Planet, November 1994
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