CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - After years of legal wrangling over wolf management, the Obama administration and three governors on Monday discussed crafting an end-game - including whether Congress should pull the plug on the debate by declaring the animals' numbers have fully recovered in the Northern Rockies.
The federal government has been turned back twice in its efforts to get wolves off the endangered species list. Success would open the door to public hunting - something the governors of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming say is badly needed to keep the predators' expanding population in check.
All three states are anxious to reduce wolf numbers to protect other wildlife and reduce livestock attacks.
The frustration from the governors and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "is that everybody recognizes that the (wolf) population is not only recovered, but it is robust," Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said after the meeting. "And why we can't get to de-listing, I think, is very frustrating for all of the people sitting around that table."
The federal government originally said it wanted a wolf population of 300 wolves when it started its reintroduction program in the Northern Rockies in the 1990s. Biologists say there are now at least 1,700 wolves in parts of six states.
Yet through a series of legal challenges over several years, environmental groups have stymied efforts to transfer wolf management from the federal government to the states.
Wyoming's insistence that its residents be allowed to shoot wolves on sight across most of the state has been the biggest obstacle to ending federal protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act. The state wants to regulate the hunting of wolves only in the northwest corner of the state, on lands generally bordering Yellowstone National Park.
The governors are hoping Congress will act on the issue before the end of the year, but bills introduced have already stirred opposition from those who warn of undermining the endangered species law.
Freudenthal said Wyoming and the other states haven't committed to anything, but that Monday's meeting offered the chance to start drafting a "road map" to get wolves off the endangered list.
And while he emphasized that Wyoming was open to talking about changing its tactics, he said it was not willing to change its fundamental principle that it needs to be able to manage wolves as it sees fit outside the "recovery area."
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said there had been no suggestion of changing the wolf recovery benchmarks, including 15 breeding pairs of the animals in each of the three states. Environmental groups have said that number is too low.
If Interior officials can't reach an agreement with Wyoming, Schweitzer said Salazar had pledged to back Idaho and Montana in their efforts before Congress. Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and Wyoming Gov.-elect Matt Mead also attended the meeting.
But Schweitzer said he had his doubts about congressional action succeeding - even if the Northern Rockies states can unite around one of the several bills introduced.
"The secretary was optimistic, and God love him for being optimistic," Schweitzer said. "Me, I would be pleasantly surprised if Congress could act."
Tom Strickland, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said the Obama administration would work closely with Wyoming to find a management plan acceptable to both sides.
"We made good progress today with Wyoming, and we're already there with Idaho and Montana," Strickland said.
As the legal tangle over wolf management in the Northern Rockies now stands, one federal judge in Montana ruled this summer that Montana and Idaho can't take over wolf management as long as the federal government manages the wolves in Wyoming. That ruling blocked Montana and Idaho from holding regulated wolf hunts this fall as they had planned.
Another federal judge in Wyoming ruled this month that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to reject Wyoming's plan in the first place.
Brown reported from Billings, Mont.