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Wyoming ranchers and hunters fed up with wolves attacking livestock and other wildlife would be able to shoot the predators on sight in most of the state under a tentative agreement state and federal officials announced Wednesday.
Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said they've come to terms over how to end federal protections for gray wolves in Wyoming -- the last state in the Northern Rockies where the animals remain under federal management.
Hours later, a judge rejected a legal challenge to a federal budget bill rider that removed protections for the gray wolf in the other Northern Rockies states.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, Mont., said precedent by a federal appeals court required him to uphold the provision passed earlier this year that stripped wolves of their endangered status in Montana and Idaho, and in parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday whether conservation groups planned to appeal.
While some neighboring states plan to let licensed hunters kill wolves at certain times of the year, Wyoming would be the only one to allow people to shoot wolves in most of the state year-round without a license.
Environmentalists swiftly blasted the agreement, saying it offers wolves too little protection and would fail judicial review unless Congress approves pending language to insulate it from legal challenges.
Mead said state management of wolves is overdue in Wyoming, where many say the animals have taken a heavy toll since they were reintroduced in the 1990s.
"For years, ranchers and sheep producers have been asked to sacrifice, and they have. We have lost significant numbers of elk and moose, and we have not had a say in the management of an animal inside Wyoming," Mead said. "It's time for that to change. ..."
Salazar has traveled to Wyoming repeatedly in recent months to work on the agreement.
He said the gray wolf's recovery serves as a "great example" of how the Endangered Species Act can work to keep imperiled animals from becoming extinct.
"The agreement we've reached with Wyoming recognizes the success of this iconic species and will ensure the long-term conservation of gray wolves," Salazar said Wednesday.
Environmental groups, however, said the deal doesn't afford wolves adequate protection.
"We do think that it's important that wolf management decisions be based on science, and not on these kind of closed-door political negotiations," said Collette Adkins Giese, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity in Minnesota.
Under the agreement, Wyoming would commit to maintaining at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside Yellowstone National Park. There are now about 340 wolves in the state, of which 230 are outside the park.
Wolves immediately outside Yellowstone would be subject to regulated hunting in a zone that would expand slightly in the winter months to give wolves more protection in an area south of Jackson. Those in the rest of the state would be classified as predators that could be shot on sight.
Wyoming's commitment to classifying wolves as predators in most of the state has been a stumbling block to ending federal wolf management for years even as neighboring states have taken over their own wolf management. Idaho and Montana are planning licensed hunts this fall in which hundreds of wolves could be killed.
Wyoming has filed several lawsuits over the issue, trying without success for years to force federal officials to accept its plan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went as far as helping Wyoming revise its wolf management plan in 2007 and approving it the next year. But the agency repudiated the plan just months later after Judge Molloy criticized it in response to a lawsuit brought by environmental groups.
Wyoming's shoot-on-sight policy continues to generate controversy. Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey announced Wednesday he had written to Salazar questioning his decision to reach a deal with the state.
"Science, not politics, should ensure the conservation and management of the gray wolves in Wyoming, should they be delisted," wrote Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., has inserted language into a pending Interior appropriations bill that specifies any delisting of wolves in Wyoming would be exempt from court challenges.
Congress approved similar language earlier this year for delisting wolves in Montana, Idaho and other Western states except Wyoming. Some environmental groups had mounted a legal challenge in Molloy's court, but his ruling Wednesday said Congress had authority to shield the delisting actions from legal review.
Steve Ferrell, Mead's policy adviser on endangered species, said Wyoming hopes Congress will act to stipulate that any final delisting plan for the state will be exempt from legal challenges.
Ferrell said the federal government plans to propose a draft delisting rule by Oct. 1. He said it could take a year for the final rule to be approved to allow Wyoming to take over wolf management. The Wyoming Legislature will consider changes to the state's current wolf management plan when it meets early next year.
Chris Colligan, Wyoming wildlife advocate for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, says the push to exempt the agreement from legal review shows the deal is politically motivated and not supported by sound science.
"It says that Wyoming and certainly our congressional representatives, they know that this plan is not legally or biologically sufficient," he said.