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Last May, the Obama administration removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana, marking the most significant development since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho 14 years prior.

The move -- which came at the heels of two failed attempts to delist the wolf by the Bush administration - put the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in charge of the state's 500-wolf population. It also ushered in the first-ever fair-chase wolf hunt here last fall. It changed how ranchers dealt with livestock depredation and how wolf habitat could be managed.

And, as expected, it prompted a federal lawsuit.

Today, that case is before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, and represents a crossroads for wolves in Montana.

The plaintiffs, a coalition of environmental groups, say the federal government made weak demands when handing management over to Montana and Idaho, allowing the states to cut their wolf populations to as few as 100 and cause a population collapse.

State and federal officials insist that the states' management plans will allow for a healthy population of wolves while allowing state biologists more flexibility when managing the species.

"It's not just about wolves," Carolyn Sime, FWP's wolf program coordinator, said about the lawsuit. "It's about the principles of state fish and wildlife management."

A token population?

When the federal government reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 - augmenting the wolf population already forming in northwest Montana -- it spelled out what wolf recovery would look like: 10 breeding pairs in each of the three areas for three consecutive years.

By 2000, the gray wolf in the Rocky Mountains had reached that mark, kicking off what was expected to be a three-year countdown to delisting.

"From a biological perspective, (recovery) has gone swimmingly well," Sime said. "It's gone smoother than many expected."

However, by the beginning of 2008, with 497 wolves and 34 breeding pairs in Montana alone, the wolf was still not off the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sparring with Wyoming over its management plan, which would have allowed wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state, and efforts to delist small pockets of wolves had been rejected by the courts.

Finally, the Bush administration proposed a plan that was eventually enacted by the Obama administration: remove the wolf in Montana and Idaho from the list. Keep wolves in Wyoming on it.

The plan also stipulated that wolves could be relisted if the population in any of the states dropped below 100 wolves or 10 breeding pairs within the first year of state management, or 150 wolves or 15 breeding pairs for three straight years.

Less than a month later, a suit was filed.

"I think it's a joke," Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain region director for plaintiff Defenders of Wildlife, said about the plan rolled out last year.

Reducing the population to 300 could devastate the species because it would hurt genetic diversity, and the strident anti-wolf rhetoric present in all three states suggests policymakers may seek to do so, Leahy said.

"Three hundred wolves in not a viable, recovered population," he said. "Are we going for a token population of wolves or are we going for true recovery?"

‘If this ain't recovery...'

Many biologists involved in the reintroduction of wolves scoff at the notion that the gray wolf is still endangered in the region.

"The population is in great shape," said Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "You can't do any better."

"If this ain't wolf recovery, I don't know what is," said Mike Phillips, who helped with the Yellowstone reintroduction as a federal biologist and now works for Ted Turner.

However, Phillips said, there is more at play than wolf numbers. There is also the question of laws.

Specifically, Judge Molloy in a preliminary ruling questioned whether it was legal for the Fish and Wildlife Service to carve Wyoming out of the delisting, suggesting that using a state line to manage wolves may be arbitrary.

Excluding Wyoming is "a fine idea," Phillips said. "I kind of like it and I understand it, but (Fish and Wildlife Service's) own policies don't allow them to do it. You can't use state boundaries as a boundary for different management schemes."

Offer of proof

In Montana's inaugural wolf hunt last fall, 74 wolves were killed. Also last year, more wolves than ever, 145, were killed for preying on livestock.

Yet, by the end of the year, the wolf population was still up, said Sime of FWP.

"The proof is in the pudding," Sime said. "The wolves are doing fine. If you really want to say the program isn't working for wolves, show me. We recorded another increase in the number of wolves."

And, Sime said, by holding wolf hunts and managing the animal like other species, wolves have a better chance at gaining wider acceptance in the state. When talking about an animal as controversial as wolves, acceptance is a factor, she said.

"History is replete with examples of what happens when humans are no longer willing to live with the wolf," she said. "They kill them. They kill them all. That's not where we want to be."

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychroncile.com or 582-2665.

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