Good news for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains: They no longer need federal protection. The bad news for the animals? Plans are already in the works to hunt them.
Federal Endangered Species Act protection of the wolves was lifted Friday in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, giving those states management of the estimated 1,500 gray wolves in the region.
Even though environmentalists plan to sue the federal government next month to restore wolf protections, hunts are already being scheduled by state wildlife agencies to reduce the wolf population to between 900 and 1,250.
Idaho hunters will be allowed to kill between 100-300 of the animals this fall under a plan approved by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission. The hunts are partly in response to increasing numbers of livestock being killed as the predators' population has grown.
"We manage big game for a living, we're good at it," said Steve Nadeau, who oversees large carnivores for the Idaho Fish and Game Department. "The world is watching and we know it."
Fish and Game estimates Idaho now has 800 gray wolves. Should the number of breeding pairs in Idaho fall below a target number, the animals could be brought back under federal protection.
After a series of public shouting matches between wolf advocates and opponents, comments from Idaho Department Fish and Game officials on Friday seemed largely designed to reassure both ends of the debate.
Cal Groen, director of the department, told reporters that his agency has already proven its ability to recover and maintain Idaho wolf populations.
"We've exceeded all the goals the federal government set," Groen said.
But Doug Honnold, a managing attorney for the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, disagrees. Honnold said the wolf populations won't be fully recovered in Idaho and the northern Rockies until the animals number between 2,000 and 3,000.
Earthjustice, which represents 12 local and national environmental groups, plans to sue the federal government next month to continue wolf protections.
All three state plans to manage the wolves call for a reduction in their numbers, which will eventually lead to weaker breeding, Honnold said in a telephone interview from Bozeman, Mont.
"We think that would be a disaster," he said. "We've spent a lot of time, money and effort to promote wolf recovery."
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1973 after being hunted into near extinction, but the population has rebounded dramatically after restoration efforts began in 1995.
The wolves were recently de-listed in the western Great Lakes, while the wolf population in the Southwest remains endangered.
Wildlife biologists estimate there are now 41 breeding pairs in Idaho, in 72 packs. If that number falls below 10 breeding pairs, or 15 during a three-year period, the wolves could be brought back under federal protection.
On Friday, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter signed a bill to allow ranchers, outfitters and pet owners to kill wolves harassing livestock.
The law gives owners up to 72 hours to report wolves they've killed after catching them annoying, disturbing or stalking animals or livestock.