CHEYENNE, Wyo. » The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no legitimate reason for its refusal to turn over management of gray wolves to the state of Wyoming, the state told a federal judge on Friday.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne heard arguments Friday in a lawsuit the state of Wyoming filed against U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The state is challenging the agency's decision last year to remove wolves in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list while leaving them protected in Wyoming.
Jay Jerde, deputy Wyoming attorney general, told Johnson that the Fish and Wildlife Service has continually shifted and inflated the requirements the state would have to meet to take over wolf management.
"If they had any good reason for rejecting our plan, they wouldn't have given this court so many bad reasons," Jerde said.
A federal lawyer, however, told Johnson the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the state's plan because it didn't guarantee a continued minimum wolf population.
Wyoming officials, together with many outfitters and agricultural producers, are anxious to end federal wolf protections so the state can start killing more of them to reduce their take of elk, moose and livestock.
Speaking after the court hearing, outfitter B.J. Hill of Jackson said wolf depredation on elk is forcing the state to weigh limited draw licenses in certain popular hunting areas bordering Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
Hill said he has been outfitting for 20 years in the area and said he's seeing the ratio of elk calves to cow elk dropping quickly and the number of trophy bulls dwindling.
"The only way we can approach it is to get delisted and start harvesting these large carnivores," Hill said. "It's got to happen soon; we're running out of time."
Wyoming proposes to treat wolves as a protected game species in the northwest corner of the state, around Yellowstone. The state wants to classify them as predators that could be shot on sight elsewhere in the state.
Jerde told Johnson that Wyoming is committed to maintaining at least 15 breeding pairs and 150 total wolves in the state -- the minimum number the Fish and Wildlife Service has said each of the three states needs to maintain.
Biologists this week said preliminary results show the population of wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming now stands at about 1,650. They say Wyoming has about 319, with at least 27 breeding pairs -- up from 22 breeding pairs in 2008.
Michael Eitel, lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice, told Johnson that federal law required giving deference to the Fish and Wildlife Service on scientific questions of how to manage the wolves.
Wyoming's plan would rely on Yellowstone National Park to maintain eight breeding pairs of wolves and reduce the population to seven breeding pairs in the state outside the park, Eitel said.
There are now at least 21 breeding pairs outside the park and six in Yellowstone, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Eitel told Johnson, "that's a discretionary issue," when the judge asked him how many wolves Wyoming should have to keep from dropping below the 15 breeding pairs, 150 wolf requirement.
"Wolves are unlikely to disburse in Wyoming under Wyoming's regulatory scheme," Eitel said. He added that protecting the wolves only in the northwest corner of the state was likely to keep them from traveling and breeding with the Montana and Idaho populations.