Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain Program Director
Navigating the turbulent waters between federal management of imperiled species and state management of most other wildlife can be as dangerous for wildlife as the mythological straits between Scylla and Charybdis. On one side is the slippery rock of the federal government, too often providing scant refuge for any endangered or imperiled species deemed controversial, like listed predators or wild bison. On the other side is the whirlpool of anti-environmental state politics, ready to shred the lifeboat of any animals that are not particularly popular in a given state.
Wolves have been cast off by the federal government with practically no protections and are now starting to circle downward in the state whirlpool. Genetically pure bison live mostly on the rock of federal land, but every time an effort is made to try to establish thems as wildlife outside of Yellowstone National Park, state courts and legislatures try to beat them back. Grizzlies are about to enter the narrow straits between federal and state management through proposals to lift federal protections, and already they face turbulence from those who would greet them with a lethal response.
Defenders’ Rockies and Plains staff and volunteers have been strategically weighing in with state legislatures and committees where we can be most effective. Our Montana staff have taken turns traveling to Helena, where the state legislature – once an exemplar for conservation – has devolved into a four-month biennial frenzy of anti-wildlife fervor focused mainly on wolves and bison. Wolves have faced bills that would cut their numbers from over 600 to 250, give free wolf licenses to deer and elk hunters, and allow them to be shot on sight on private land. Bison face numerous bills to prevent any wild bison from entering the rest of Montana from the two areas where they are now, including authorizing landowners to shoot them on sight and stopping tribes from restoring bison to their reservations. Grizzlies still have more political clout than their wild compatriots, but even they faced a bill to require lethal control for even the most minor conflicts with people and domestic animals. Counties are also trying to wrest control of all wildlife from the state fish and wildlife agencies, which would be really bad for bears and countless other species.
Defenders’ Montana members have weighed in on many of these bills, and our local staff have testified on many as well. Sometimes it seems like our pro-wildlife pleas fall on deaf ears, but most of the craziest bills are getting beaten back! One bill was even amended – based in part on our input – to direct a couple hundred-thousand dollars to nonlethal tools to prevent predation on livestock.
Defenders certainly isn’t doing this alone. We work closely with other conservation groups as well as with conservation-minded hunting organizations and tribes. While too many hunting organizations have been extremely hostile towards federally protected predators, those that remain true to their conservation roots are among wildlife’s most effective advocates at the state level. Tribes have sovereignty over wildlife and resource issues on their reservations and most state legislatures recognize that their authority does not extend onto wildlife management issues on tribal lands.
We are also active in other states. Past legislative efforts in Oregon to set up solid programs to manage wolves continue to pay dividends. Nonlethal wolf management strategies are firmly established there and have been maintained so far this year with minimal political interference. Unfortunately, the Washington state legislature is increasingly going the way of Wyoming, with lots of venomous anti-wolf bills. The bills seek to undermine the state’s relatively balanced wolf management plan by giving authority to local elected officials over state wildlife biologists and allowing their constituents to override state restrictions and kill wolves perceived to be a threat to livestock on public and private lands. Fortunately, Defenders has a strong membership presence in Washington state, as do a number of our colleagues, and we have been sending some of our experts to Washington state to help volunteers push back on these bills.
State wildlife management is not federal wildlife management, and once an endangered species loses its federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, in most cases management reverts back to complete state control. States allow hunting and sometimes trapping of game species, and have been particularly harsh in their treatment of predators like wolves and bears. However, if wolves, bison, and bears can make it through the current straits of uncertainty to calmer waters where they are managed more like other wildlife – for the long term, healthy in numbers and distribution, free-roaming – there will be opportunities to secure their populations and continue their recovery. If they don’t make it through these straits, if states never embrace their responsibility to manage former federally protected members of the nation’s wildlife in trust for the public – there is always the possibility the federal government will have to step in again.