Idaho Prepares for 'Wolf Disaster'

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The governor of Idaho is considering whether to declare a "wolf disaster," as lawyers in federal courts wrangle over the future of the state's wolves.

The Idaho legislature approved a bill last week that would give Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter the power to declare a state of emergency because of the rising wolf population.

Otter has said he supports the bill, but his staff is reviewing legal issues before he signs it and invokes the power it gives him to enlist local law enforcement to cull the state's wolf packs.

Idaho, like neighboring Montana and Wyoming, has been battling the federal government and environmental groups since 1995, when wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains.

Ranchers and hunters blame wolves not only for attacks on livestock, but for declining populations of elk and other wildlife.

But the bill awaiting Otter's signature also refers to a "clear and present danger to humans" created by the "imported wolves."

Karen Calisterio, who spoke in support of the bill at a public hearing at the statehouse in Boise last week, said four wolves recently trapped her in the driveway of her Benewah County home.

"I cannot convey to you the horror of that event," she said. "The government's wolves have free rein of my property and I do not.

"Until something is done about these wolves, I'm a prisoner in my own home," she said.

No human has been injured by a wolf since the animals were reintroduced to the Rockies 16 years ago, and wolf biologists say there has never been a documented attack on a human by a healthy wolf in North America.

"Wolves are less dangerous than most wildlife we've lived with for generations," Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife told lawmakers.

When the wolves were reintroduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they were listed as endangered species, but in 2009 that protection was lifted in Idaho and Montana -- though not in Wyoming -- giving those states the right to develop a management plan for the animals.

State management has never happened, though, because of the ongoing legal battle over interpretation of the Endangered Species Act.

In August, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Mont., ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service acted improperly by lifting the protection on the wolf population in two states, but not the third.

In March, a group of 10 conservation groups and the FWS reached an agreement on a new plan to de-list wolves in Montana and Idaho, but in a ruling issued Saturday, Molloy barred the agreement from taking effect.

He wrote in his 24-page decision that the court does not have the authority to put part of an endangered species population under state management and expose that population to hunting.

"Congress has clearly determined that animals on the ESA must be protected as such," he wrote.

That protection could be eliminated, however, by a rider attached to the proposed federal budget being finalized in Washington, which would remove wolves in Idaho and Montana from the protected species list.

It was a fear Congress removing the protection for wolves that led some conservation groups to reach the deal with FWS on allowing state management of the wolf populations that the judge struck down.

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