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    Rules Shielding the Gray Wolf May Soon Ease

Monday, July 3, 2000


The federal government is preparing to announce that the gray wolf, which was once nearly shot, trapped and poisoned out of existence in the lower 48 states, is abundant enough in a few places that it no longer uniformly needs the strict protection afforded the country's most endangered species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans this month to propose dropping the wolf a significant notch under the Endangered Species Act, from endangered to threatened, in all but a small part of its range.

The change would mean that, in most areas, wolves that kill livestock or otherwise pose a threat to human affairs could be chased away or shot by government agents.

It also represents the first step toward eventually turning over management of the species, Canis lupus, in many places to state wildlife agencies.

Just about anything having to do with the wolf, which has been both reviled and revered through much of human history, generates fierce debate, and the proposed change in its status is no different.

Some conservation groups say the forthcoming plan would relax protections too soon and would declare victory before wolves have recolonized broad parts of their old range. Many ranchers and conservative private groups, though, say the laws shielding wolves wrongly limit property owners' rights.

Wildlife officials acknowledge that, in part, the proposed change -- by allowing shooting of livestock raiders -- is intended to assuage opponents of wolf restoration, including ranchers and their allies in Congress.

But they argue that the relaxation of rules would be a net benefit for the species by diminishing the tendency of frustrated property owners to resort to illegal, uncontrolled killing of wolves.

Most significantly, the federal scientists said, the proposed change signals their confidence that the comeback of the wolf, although limited to less than 5 percent of its former range in this country, constitutes an important ecological success story -- like that of the American alligator, peregrine falcon and bald eagle before it.

They say that the lower 48 states had only about 400 wolves in 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was passed -- almost all of them in Minnesota or Michigan. Now more than 3,500 animals roam parts of eight states. Thousands more live in Alaska, Canada and parts of Europe.

"The question of the next decade will not be how to save the wolf, but rather how best to manage the animal," according to a recent status report written by Dr. L. David Mech, a biologist for the United States Geological Survey and a leading wolf expert.

From coast to coast, conservation and property rights groups, ranchers and wildlife watchers still heatedly debate the possible reintroduction of a predator that is a first cousin of man's best friend but also is an age-old antagonist.

Last year, New Hampshire's Legislature approved a bill banning the reintroduction of wolves. Oregon's Congressional delegation has repeatedly introduced language that would limit wolf protections or bar even the natural migration of wolves from adjacent states.

Two wolves wandered into Oregon in the last year from experimental packs transplanted into central Idaho. One was captured and sent home by federal officials and the other was killed by a car. Environmental groups hailed the dispersing wolves as pioneers returning the call of the wild to the state after a 50-year absence. Ranching groups said the state was well rid of them and did not need them back.

"We have excessive numbers of cougars, coyotes and bears that take a heavy toll on the other wildlife and livestock, and we simply cannot add another predator," said Sharon Beck, a past president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association.

But in some places, there are signs that wolves are becoming an accepted feature of the landscape outside of parks and preserves, and conflicts are shifting from whether they should be there to how they should be dealt with.

Some Montana ranchers have figured out high-tech ways of driving them away instead of resorting to high-powered rifles and a strategy popularly known as "shoot, shovel and shut up."

On his 4,000-acre ranch in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, Tom Ruffatto recently installed loud alarms that are triggered by the radio tracking collars used to monitor most of the area's wolf packs.

Mr. Ruffatto's project was partly paid for by Defenders of Wildlife, a private group that also writes checks to cover livestock losses from wolf attacks.

In Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, wolves are so abundant -- some have dens just 50 miles from Minneapolis -- that they could theoretically be removed entirely from the endangered list. The only impediment lies in Minnesota, which has yet to follow the other two states and create its own wolf management program -- a prerequisite if federal protection is to be ended.

"No matter what is done in Minnesota, there's no way of threatening the wolf there anymore," said Dr. Mech (pronounced MEECH). "I can't conceive of anything, excluding poison, that would endanger this population."

Under the agency's classification scheme, the only place wolves would remain endangered would be portions of southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where efforts to bolster a particularly rare subspecies have faltered, wildlife officials say.

As drafts of the new wolf classification proposal have circulated, private conservation groups, scientists, ranchers and others with an interest in the animal have begun lobbying for changes and girding for hearings and -- inevitably -- lawsuits.

Once it is formally released, the proposed classification change will be the subject of four months of public comment -- twice the required length -- and eight months of internal discussions and possible changes before it becomes a rule.

The tug of war now is between those who want wolves restored to broader parts of their range, including the southern Rockies and the Northeast, and those who say that the existing numbers are sufficient.

The Endangered Species Act includes miles of wiggle room on this point, containing no clear guidance on how much of a species' original range needs to be restored before it is declared saved.

A recent draft of the proposal was provided to a reporter by someone outside the Fish and Wildlife Service. Officials at the agency said that almost all of the draft's major points would be reflected in the final version.

Under the plan, wolf habitat in the lower 48 states would be divided into four regions, with separate recovery plans for each.

The western Great Lakes region would encompass Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota. The western region would be Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and parts of northern New Mexico and Arizona.

The southwestern region, the only one where wolves would remain endangered, would include some parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

The northeastern region would be New York, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Wolves have not been seen in the Adirondacks in 100 years and only two possible sightings have been made in Maine, which is considered the likeliest spot for any future reintroduction effort.

But federal wildlife officials said they were not even sure what kind of wolves inhabited the Northeast, with some genetic studies suggesting that they were red wolves, a different species altogether. In part because of those questions, no recovery effort is likely in the Northeast for many years, officials said.

In the rest of the contiguous states, the proposal says, wolves are never likely to be seen again, and thus in these areas -- 30 states in all -- the animals would be dropped from the list entirely, leaving any future decisions about restoration up to state officials.

Criticism of the impending plan is particularly acute in Colorado, where private wildlife groups have banded together into a coalition aimed at trying to replicate in the southern Rockies the successes with wolf introduction in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho.

Tina Arapkiles, a regional representative for the Sierra Club in Boulder, Colo., said the Fish and Wildlife Service was trying to wrap things up before the job was done.

"Their own studies said that over 1,000 wolves could exist in 11 of the national forests in Colorado alone," Ms. Arapkiles said.

Private land owners, including Ted Turner, the media tycoon, have offered expansive tracts of land, rich in elk and other prey, that could serve as wolf habitat, she added. "To ignore that kind of potential is foolhardy," Ms. Arapkiles said.

But federal wildlife officials are standing by their conclusions, saying that the federal list of endangered species is the ecological equivalent of a hospital's intensive care unit, and that wolves are clearly ready for the recovery room.

Ron Refsnider, a wolf biologist for the wildlife agency based in Minnesota and the main author of the forthcoming classification proposal, said there was still plenty of work to do to nurture the wolves living in the northern Rockies and especially in the Southwest.

"At best, those wolves have a tiny toehold on the landscape," Mr. Refsnider said, referring to areas along the Mexican border that could support the Mexican subspecies. Right now, he said, fewer than two dozen wolves roam there.

Any significant new federal programs to expand the range of wolves, he said, would come at the expense of other species that may be just as important ecologically, but that do not have the mystique and high profile of a legendary predator.

"There was no intention that the act should be providing long-term care for these species," Mr. Refsnider said. "The intent is to pull them back from the brink for the foreseeable future and turn them over to normal management agencies. And that's what we're proposing."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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