- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2000

LAKEWOOD, Colo. The gray wolf has been listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 states since 1974, but according to wolf advocates, that's not long enough.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on a proposed order to downgrade the wolf's status to "threatened" in some regions and delist the animal altogether in others. The agency cites the animal's increased numbers and expansion of its habitat as reasons that "the species' current classification is no longer appropriate throughout most of its range."

"That's our mission to get species recovered," said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Sharon Rose. "We'll still monitor them for five years, and step back in if they get into trouble."

But the proposal has met with howls of protest literally from some environmentalists, who worry that the wolf will become a target again unless protected by the stringent guidelines of the Endangered Species Act. At two Fish and Wildlife public hearings here last week, about 150 people testified against the rule change.

"With the bald eagle and peregrine falcon, we saw an attitude change. It's now not acceptable to kill a bald eagle or peregrine falcon, but it's still acceptable to kill a wolf," said Kathy Shelton of Denver. "We still need to educate society."

The Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf-recovery program brought Canadian gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park, Montana and Idaho, where they have nearly met the agency's goal of 30 mating pairs. The agency also reintroduced Mexican gray wolves into Arizona and New Mexico, but the program is so young that the service wants the animals to retain their endangered status.

Stable wolf populations also are found in Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and especially Minnesota, where their numbers stand at about 2,500, the highest in the nation. The agency's original recovery plan says 1,200 to 1,400 wolves in Minnesota would constitute a fully recovered wolf population.

What troubles environmentalists is that the agency has no wolf-recovery plan for the Southern Rockies. If the animals are delisted, it's unlikely that wolves would ever cross into Colorado or Utah on their own because of the busy highways and rough terrain.

Even if they did, they said, Colorado would be unable to protect the animals, noting that the state still has a law offering a $2 bounty on wolves. Although Colorado's wolf population was killed off 50 years ago during the days of the federal wolf bounty, the agency has described the state's Western slope as ideal habitat.

Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, called the bounty threat "ridiculous," pointing out that the state also has listed the wolves as endangered. The state has officially opposed the reintroduction of the wolf and grizzly bear, but it would reconsider if a recovery plan took into account the concerns of landowners, he said.

"Certainly we're trying to restore wildlife to Colorado, but the wolf is not a priority," Mr. Malmsbury said. "We've got other species we're looking at, [such as] the boreal toad. They're just not charismatic mega-fauna like the wolf is."

Before Thursday's hearing, the Southern Rockies Wolf Restoration Project, a coalition of environmental groups, called on the agency to keep the wolves' endangered status and devise a reintroduction program for Colorado.

At a news conference, wolf advocates performed a skit that showed the wolves being hidden from the Fish and Wildlife Service in hotels, and they ended the conference by howling.

"The service would have you believe wolves are recovered when no wolves exist in Colorado," said Craig Miller, Southwest regional director for Defenders of Wildlife. "If [the order] is implemented, there will be no wolves in Colorado's future, plain and simple."

That would be fine with cattle ranchers, sheep herders and others who raise livestock in the Southern Rockies. Western ranchers have long opposed wolf reintroduction, calling it a risk to their livestock and a threat to their property rights, and many are supporting the delisting proposal.

"The wolf just flat-out isn't endangered," said Tom McDonnell, spokesman for the American Sheep Industry in Englewood, Colo. "We have hundreds and thousands of them in North America. The goal isn't to see the animals in every state, it's to recover the animal."

Comments on the rule change, which was proposed in July, are being taken through Nov. 13. No decision is expected before the end of the year.

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