By Laura Bly, USA TODAY
The 11th hour budget compromise slated for final Congressional approval this week includes a controversial provision that lifts gray wolves from the federal Endangered Species List across most of the Northern Rockies – opening the door to commercial hunts this fall, and focusing new attention on wolf-related tourism in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere.
The measure, pushed by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and considered a “done deal” by several environmental groups, follows years of legal wrangling. It would overturn a recent federal court ruling that barred the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from taking the wolves off the protected list in Northern Rockies states.
The region’s population of gray wolves, once hunted to near-extinction, now stands at roughly 1,650 after federal reintroduction efforts in the mid-1990s. And despite their elusiveness, they’ve become “a powerful economic generator for tourism” in communities near Yellowstone National Park, says Kurt Repanshek of National Parks Traveler. A 2006 study projected that Yellowstone tourists who come to watch wolves spend $35 million a year on those trips.
Environmentalists worry that removing wolves from the endangered species list sets a dangerous precedent and could spark dramatic reductions in wolf numbers as states allow hunting to protect other wildlife and livestock. Protections would remain intact in Wyoming, at least for now, notes the Associated Press, and the wolves could not be hunted within national park boundaries. But wolf hunting would resume this fall in Idaho and Montana, where animals have been blamed in hundreds of livestock attacks and for declines seen in some big game herds. Wolves also would be returned to state management in Washington, Oregon and Utah.
“Wolves are close to being fully recovered, but they are not there yet,” says Andrew Wetzler, director of Land and Wildlife Programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Adds Matthew Kirby of the Sierra Club: “Our main concern is that to start having politicians make species-specific decisions undermines the scientific approach that’s central to the Endangered Species Act. It opens a Pandora’s box (for other animals on the list).”
But advocates of the measure argue that a rapidly expanding wolf population is compromising safety for both humans and livestock. Last week, the Idaho legislature approved a bill declaring the state’s estimated 800 wolves a “disaster emergency” – akin to a flood or wildfire – and giving the governor broad powers to eliminate them. The legislation says the wolves are destroying herds of big-game animals and damaging tourism, hunting and agriculture.
In 2009, the only year that commercial wolf hunts were authorized, Montana generated $325,000 in wolf hunting license fees, says Ron Aasheim of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That year hunters killed 72 wolves from a permitted quota of 75; the state’s total estimated wolf population is between 560 and 570, he says.
There are strong passions on both sides,’ adds Aasheim, who notes that the state draws about $300 million a year from both wildlife viewing and hunting. “But we feel it’s all about balance.”
Source: USA Today
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