The Interior Department today said it has reached a settlement with 10 environmental groups to temporarily remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Montana and Idaho while continuing efforts to recover the species throughout the Rocky Mountains.
For now, federal protections would remain in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah, and settling groups would agree not to challenge a regional delisting plan for at least five years as long as certain conditions are met.
Separate negotiations will continue between the Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming on a state management plan that would clear the way for a final delisting.
"For too long, management of wolves in this country has been caught up in controversy and litigation instead of rooted in science where it belongs," said a statement by Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes. "This proposed settlement provides a path forward to recognize the successful recovery of the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains and to return its management to states and tribes."
The proposed settlement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, whose August 2009 decision returned ESA protections to wolves on the grounds that they could not be delisted along political borders in Montana and Idaho if they were not also being delisted in Wyoming.
Four environmental groups, including Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Western Watersheds Project, did not agree to the settlement and are thus not subject to its terms limiting legal challenges.
The settlement would also be terminated if Congress passes its own wolf delisting language, as has been proposed in both House and Senate spending bills.
Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson (R), who inserted language in the House's continuing resolution to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana and prohibit legal challenges, said he is concerned that the settlement puts too much pressure on neighboring states.
"I am hopeful that this proposal moves us closer to that goal, and I deeply appreciate [Interior] Secretary [Ken] Salazar's tenacity in finding a long-term solution to this problem," he said in a statement. "I am concerned, however, that this settlement could have a negative impact on states like Oregon, Washington, and Utah, which were not part of the original reintroduction area."
Simpson also warned environmental groups that continued efforts to force species protections through the courts would only intensify legislative efforts among Western lawmakers. "The House has already done so by including language in H.R. 1 to overturn Judge Molloy's decision, and I will continue to push to have this measure signed into law," he said.
Under the settlement, FWS would agree to address the delisting of wolves in the region as a distinct population segment, rather than on a state-by-state basis.
Interior would also maintain federal protections for wolves in portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah where they were removed as part of the disputed 2009 delisting.
"We think it's a good settlement. We got some and we gave some," said Bill Snape, senior attorney for Center for Biological Diversity, one of the settling parties. Other settling groups included the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Under the settlement, Interior agreed to re-evaluate a George W. Bush administration definition of "distinct population segment" that failed to look at the historical distribution of wolves, Snape said.
Within four years, Interior would also seek an independent scientific assessment of whether wolves are being managed in a way that guarantees "the continued presence of a sustainable, genetically connected population of wolves," the agency said.
The settlement would also ensure Interior takes the scientific steps necessary to revise an outdated 1987 recovery plan, Snape said.
"This may finally untie the Gordian Knot of polarized wolf politics," he said.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) called the settlement "a significant step forward in moving toward state management of wolves."
"Montana must have the ability to manage wildlife, to do our job, to seek a balance among predator and prey," he said in a statement. "We need the authority to respond to the challenges wolves present every day."