SALMON, Idaho (Reuters/Laura Zuckerman) - Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer declared on Wednesday he was ready to order state game officials to kill off entire wolf packs in defiance of federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the two-term Democrat cited his authority as governor to uphold citizens' rights "to protect their property and to continue to enjoy Montana's cherished wildlife heritage and traditions."
Schweitzer said he was driven to act out of an urgent need to assist ranchers and sportsmen left unable to control wolves posing a serious threat to livestock and elk herds.
"If there is a dang wolf in your corral attacking your pregnant cow, shoot that wolf. And if its pals are in the corral, shoot them, too," Schweitzer told Reuters in a telephone interview.
His letter comes as rising tensions over wolves in the Northern Rockies, including Idaho and Wyoming, are playing out in the courts, Congress and state legislatures.
"I cannot continue to ignore the crying need for workable wolf management while Montana waits, and waits, and waits," Schweitzer wrote.
Last week, federal wildlife officials proposed letting Idaho kill off scores of wolves in what would be the largest government-sanctioned wolf culling in that state since the animals were reintroduced to the Rockies in the mid-1990s.
Schweitzer is threatening to act without seeking federal approval in advance, to order state wildlife agents to "respond to any livestock depredation by removing whole (wolf) packs that kill livestock wherever this may occur."
The governor said he would allow ranchers themselves to kill any wolves that attack their livestock, and to do so without the need for an investigation by wildlife officials.
An estimated 1,700 wolves roam parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, all of them generally protected from sport hunting.
Asked if he felt he was violating federal law, Schweitzer said his attorneys had reviewed his letter and advised him that his decrees were "well within our powers."
A spokeswoman for the Interior Department, Kendra Barkoff, said the administration of President Barack Obama agreed that wolf numbers have recovered and should be managed by the states, but "the governor's letter is not the answer."
The government in 2009 removed the wolf from the list of endangered species in Montana and Idaho, but environmentalists sued, and a federal judge in Montana last August ordered wolf protections restored in those two states.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)
Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.