ESA challenges numerous, growing
Cheyenne — As endangered species issues dominate the headlines, it’s easy to overlook the broad nature of work that takes place within the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“A healthy wildlife population is certainly a goal of the department and the benefit livestock producers bring is immeasurable,” says Game and Fish Director Steve Ferrell. “I don’t think you can overstate the value working landscapes provide to a healthy wildlife population. The livestock industry in Wyoming provides many benefits to wildlife.”
Some of the greatest challenges — wolves, grizzly bears, sage grouse and brucellosis — are shared between the wildlife and livestock sectors. “Disappointment,” says Ferrell when asked about his agency’s response to the recent relisting of the grizzly bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It’s a feeling that was echoed amidst Wyoming’s agricultural community, especially in the wake of a grizzly attacking a sheepherder in western Wyoming just one week prior to the decision.
“You can imagine the frustration of that decision is similar to when the wolf was relisted,” says Ferrell. “We’re back to the drawing board.” Just days after the decision Game and Fish agreed to continue managing the grizzly for the time being, but will do so under a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “We’re the only ones with the resources to manage nuisance bears right now,” says Ferrell. Abandoning such management now, he adds, could leave Wyoming residents short a very important service in the immediate future. Hunters and anglers purchasing licenses in the state provide the bulk of the money necessary to operate the grizzly management program.
“That’s a good question,” says Ferrell when asked if the agency should continue to manage the bear now that it’s back under federal oversight. “That’s something I haven’t formulated my opinion on that yet. We’ve got to analyze more fully and determine what that means to us. We’re in a holding pattern right now to see how the FWS might respond to this court ruling.”
Another factor is a pending court cased filed in Idaho, also seeking to have the bears returned to ESA protections. If the outcome of that case is different than the recent decision, Ferrell says it’s his understanding that it would progress to the Ninth Circuit for further deliberation. While it’s a conservative number, Ferrell says the Game and Fish doesn’t doubt the accuracy of the estimate of 600 grizzly bears within Wyoming.
Management of the grizzly bears becomes increasingly difficult as bear populations increase and they become less fearful of humans. “We’ve got a crew that works with grizzly bears throughout the season they aren’t hibernating,” says Ferrell. The crew’s work spans from relocating problem bears to addressing nuisance grizzlies.
As wolf discussions continue in the courtrooms, personnel at the WGFD have watched ongoing wolf hunting seasons in Idaho and Montana with interest. Three weeks into the Montana season, as of Oct. 6 hunters had harvested nine of the 75-wolf quota. In Idaho, where the season has been open slightly longer, hunters have harvested 28 of the 220-wolf quota.
“Wolves aren’t as easy to hunt as some people think they are,” says Ferrell. “A lot of people thought they’d reach their quotas in a week or two and I think that was an unreasonable expectation.”
“They’re certainly having an impact,” says Ferrell of wolves and wildlife. Research, he says, is ongoing in the Cody area to quantify the impacts. Of particular concern, he says, is the inability to manage wolves to reduce their impacts on big game populations.
Does the Endangered Species Act need to be reformed? “It’s certainly been the source of a lot of frustration over my career,” says Ferrell. “There have been several attempts at trying to modify it, which is probably a barometer of public opinion, but it hasn’t been successful yet. I don’t think that’s going to be an easy thing to do, but I do hope Congress keeps it on their radar screens and makes the ESA less prone to litigation.”
“The ESA precludes state authority over wildlife,” says Ferrell. “States don’t have authority over species once they’re listed, that belongs to the FWS. Every time a species is listed or relisted that takes the state role out of it. That in itself is troubling and is one of the main reasons we like to get species off of the ESA and re-assume that role.”
As it relates to the sage grouse, G&F has been a leader in efforts to keep the bird from being listed. Asked about the workload impact to his agency stemming from the Governor’s executive order addressing development in sage grouse core areas, Ferrell says, “The Executive Order is really an asset to the role we’ve been trying to play. Our increased work load relating to sage grouse really happened a long time ago.” Since the bird was petitioned for listing, Ferrell says Wyoming alone has addressed the bird’s habitat needs with projects covering 500,000 acres.
During a recent meeting including the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and the Wyoming Board of Agriculture, Ferrell says the state’s elk population was discussed. Currently over objective in many areas, Ferrell says, “Access to private land is a barrier in getting on top of this. Game and Fish is partnering with the Ag Board in looking at some ways to improve access with willing landowners.”
“We have several elk herds that are over objective,” says Ferrell. While that scenario is of greatest concern in those areas where the elk carry brucellosis, he says bringing the herds back within objective is a priority statewide.
Jennifer Womack is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.