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Budget rider would lift wolf protections in northern Rockies

April 12, 2011 |  5:41 pm

Wolves-dutcher 2 

When Congress passes the federal budget, it’s increasingly likely lawmakers will also be sealing the fate of wolves in the northern Rockies. An unrelated rider quietly attached by legislators from Montana and Idaho to the crucial spending compromise would for the first time in history allow Congress to cancel federal protections for an endangered species.

The recovery of wolves near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the surrounding ranchlands has been fought out in the courts for years. But never has the controversy come so close to a simple gunshot to the head as this week.

Wolves-dutcher Not only is the budget rider a near done-deal,  requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah, but a federal judge in Montana over the weekend rejected a proposed settlement that might have provided the only momentum against a congressional coup de grace.

“This creates a very dangerous precedent for the Endangered Species Act,” said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, D.C.

“For the first time in history, Congress is removing a species … from the Endangered Species Act based on political, rather than biological, judgments,” the public interest law firm, Earthjustice, said in a statement.

The rider attached by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) as part of the budget compromise -- scheduled to be voted on by the end of the week -- would require federal wildlife managers to go forward with a 2009 Fish and Wildlife Service plan to de-list wolves not only in Montana and Idaho, but also in portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah.

Both Washington and Oregon have small, fledgling wolf populations that conservationists fear could be quickly wiped out if hunting, baiting and trapping of wolves resumes.

That earlier plan was going to leave wolves under federal protection in Wyoming, because of concerns that the state’s shoot-on-sight philosophy, in which wolves would be designated as predators in all but the northwest corner of the state,  was not a good bet for guaranteeing their recovery.

A federal judge in Montana threw out the plan, saying the government couldn’t de-list wolves in some states and leave them protected in Wyoming. But the budget rider essentially orders the government to do just that -- and also decrees there will be no more second-guessing of the issue in the courts.

Wyoming doesn’t get an immediate free pass on wolves, but the legislation does require that federal managers give deference to a finding by a federal judge in Wyoming in November that found there was no reason to reject that state’s wolf management plan simply because it considers wolves as predators in most parts of the state.

New talks are under way now between the Fish and Wildlife Service and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, who took office in January.

Wolf advocates have argued that more wolves, spread out over a greater range, with stronger scientific oversight, are needed before full de-listing.

While wolves were all but wiped out in most parts of the continental U.S. by the mid-20th century, the $35-million reintroduction program since 1995 has led to a population of about 1,700 wolves across an ever-expanding range in the northern Rockies, though poaching, harsh living conditions and killing to avoid conflicts with livestock have taken a big toll.

Ranch owners and hunters in Montana and Idaho. who are concerned that increasing numbers of wolves are having a devastating impact on sheep and elk, say there have been more than enough studies and court cases -- it’s time, they say, to put states back in charge of wildlife.

“Right now, Montana’s wolf population is out of balance and this provision will get us back on the responsible path with state management. Wolves have recovered in the northern Rockies,” Tester, who is chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, said in a statement.

“By untying the hands of the Montana biologists who know how to keep the proper balance, we will restore healthy wildlife populations and we will protect livestock. This provision is best for our wildlife, our livestock and for wolves themselves.”

In Idaho, where alarm over wolves is substantial, the state Legislature last week declared a wolf “state of emergency” that allows Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter to enlist local law enforcement to kill wolves that are threatening people, livestock or other wildlife. Idaho residents testified that citizens feel threatened by ever-larger numbers of increasingly fearless wolves, though there have been no cases of wolves attacking humans in the region.

“The Idaho Legislature finds and declares that the state's citizens, businesses, hunting, tourism and agricultural industries, private property and wildlife, are immediately and continuously threatened and harmed by the sustained presence and growing population of Canadian gray wolves in the state of Idaho,” the legislation said.

Ironically, many of the parties who have fought longest over wolf reintroduction this month were on the verge of a settlement that might have ended the protracted court fights.

Ten conservation groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed in March to proceed with de-listing of the wolves in Idaho and Montana, so long as a scientific panel was set up to examine the need to set a higher bar for recovering the wolves. It would have left in place federal protection for the wolves in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah, where they are considered most vulnerable.

All but four of the 14 conservation groups battling to protect the wolves in court had agreed to the settlement, reasoning that it could avert the even greater threat of Congress stepping in and gutting the Endangered Species Act.

But U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled over the weekend that he had no authority to enact the settlement, both in deference to federal law and to four other conservation groups who considered it a sell-out. Download Judge Molloy ruling.

And what wolf advocates consider the worst-case scenario -- a threat to both wolves and the Endangered Species Act itself -- now appears all but certain. Tinkering with the delicate compromise that averted a shutdown of the federal government last week will meet stiff resistance.

“There’s no doubt about it: Wolves were gut-shot over the weekend by Congress and the administration,” Louisa Willcox, the NRDC’s senior wildlife advocate in Montana, wrote in a commentary.

Mogerman said the rider could mean threats to additional species in the future. "There's a process in place for dealing with these issues in the courts. But by Congress acting, it's just a completely different animal," he said. "You look down the [Endangered Species Act], you see critter after critter and plant after plant that are probably inconvenient to special interests all over the  country. And what [they] have done is opened the door to removing plants and animals from the ESA by whim, rather than science."

Yet Tester said the proposed legislation will provide a way forward where none previously existed.

"This wolf fix isn't about one party's agenda," the congressman said in a statement. "It's about what's right for Montana and the West, which is why I've been working so hard to get this solution passed, and why it has support from all sides."

RELATED:

Packs of politicians take aim at wolf protections

Judge allows gray wolf hunt to proceed in Idaho and Montana

Montana wolf hunt is stalked by controversy

-- Kim Murphy

Photos: Wolves from the Northern Rockies, part of a photo exhibition sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and the Idaho-based organization Living With Wolves, which has lobbied for continued protections for wolves and produced a new report on the northern Rockies reintroduction, Wolves at a Crossroads. The exhibit runs April 11-15 at the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Credit: Jim Dutcher of Living With Wolves.

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