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Salazar's Wolf Decision Upsets Administration Allies

Some environmentalists and congressional Democrats are unhappy that Salazar cleared the way for hunting of the once-imperiled wolves just days after President Obama declared his support for federally protecting vulnerable species.

"Making the decision to adopt the Bush administration's flawed delisting proposal the same week that the president pledged his commitment to the Endangered Species Act certainly calls into question whether the Interior Department was coordinating as closely as one would expect to have done with the White House," said Bob Irvin, senior vice president for conservation programs at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife. "This was a controversy that did not need to happen."

One House Democrat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, framed it in even more blunt political terms. "I just don't see what this does for us," the lawmaker said. "Here we are alienating people who did the most -- who did a lot to help us in the last election."

The move pleased many elected officials in Idaho and Montana, whose states have the largest numbers of gray wolves and who had pressed the Interior Department to turn management of the animals over to them. Interior kept wolves on the endangered list in Wyoming, saying that state's management plan failed to pass muster, while also taking them off the list in parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah.

"It was a good sign for folks out here who were a little worried about having a Democratic administration hit the restart button on the conservation and environmental wars of the 1990s," said John Foster, spokesman for Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho). "I can't emphasize how important it is to have a Western rancher as secretary of the interior."

Otter, the Idaho governor, had hailed a similar Bush delisting proposal in 2007 by telling a crowd of hunters that, as soon as federal protections were lifted, "I'm prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself." He reiterated this goal to a group of local reporters March 6, after howling like a wolf and smiling.

Gray wolves had almost disappeared from the continental United States when they were listed as endangered in 1974, but they now number 1,650 in the northern Rockies. That population growth has sparked a long-running feud over whether the animals have recovered enough to be subject to hunting again.

President George W. Bush first proposed delisting all gray wolves in the northern Rockies in January 2007, but a federal court in Montana suspended the rule last summer, ruling that the states had failed to demonstrate that they would maintain a sufficient number of wolves once the federal protections were lifted. Bush issued a second delisting rule on Jan. 14, and the Obama administration suspended it upon taking office.

Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery coordinator for the northwestern United States, said gray wolves will be able to withstand regulated hunting in Idaho and Montana because the states have pledged to maintain at least 500 and 400 wolves, respectively, in the short term, and the animals will be able to migrate and interbreed with thousands of gray wolves in Canada.

"Right now the wolf population is highly diverse. We've done as much as we can," Bangs said. "The science is absolutely rock-solid."

However, some experts such as Carlos Carroll, who has advised Bangs's team on wolf recovery in the past, said recent studies indicate that the two wolf groups do not mix enough to sustain a diminished wolf population in the northern Rockies.

"The service needs to take a hard look at the new studies and data, and incorporate that into their recovery standards," said Carroll, who directs the Klamath Center for Conservation Research in Orleans, Calif. The current recovery standard was set in 1987, Carroll noted.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who chairs the House Appropriations interior and environment subcommittee, led nine other House members in asking Salazar on Thursday to postpone finalizing the delisting rule for at least 60 days. "I don't think they took enough time to evaluate the science," Dicks said.

But Barkoff indicated that Salazar plans to let Idaho and Montana take control of the wolves' welfare, adding, "Secretary Salazar will carefully monitor the management of gray wolves in those states where they were delisted."

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