Supporters of wolf delisting expressed cautious optimism, while opponents were resigned to a setback as Congress edged closer to passing a budget that would give Idaho and Montana authority to manage wolves.
Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana added language to a budget bill Tuesday that would reinstate a 2009 rule to remove wolves from the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The language is one of several so called riders congressional negotiators and the White House agreed to last week as they worked to avoid a government shutdown.
If the bill passes and is signed into law, Idaho's ability to conduct wolf hunting seasons and reduce wolf numbers would be restored.
"It's encouraging to see both the Senate and the House have agreed upon wording and the support seems to be bipartisan," said Virgil Moore, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "The process isn't over until the vote is taken. I'm not ready or capable of declaring victory until such time as we get across the finish line."
The 2009 rule, written by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was struck down by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, Mont., last summer. Molloy ruled the federal government could not leave wolves in Wyoming protected while delisting them in Idaho and Montana. Wolf recovery goals in all three states were met and surpassed early this century, but lawsuits and an argument over Wyoming's wolf management plan has kept them on the list.
"If the courts are incapable of recognizing when a species is fully recovered, then Congress will have to make that determination for them," Simpson said. "I am glad to see Congress confirm the original intent of the Endangered Species Act by moving to return to state control the management of a species that has met and surpassed even the most optimistic recovery goals."
The bill will also remove federal protections for wolves in eastern Oregon and Washington and northern Utah. Wolves in Wyoming, however, will remain protected.
On Saturday, Molloy refused to accepted a proposed settlement to a lawsuit that struck down the 2009 rule. The agreement was a last-minute effort by environmental groups to stave off a congressional delisting effort. It would have delisted wolves in Idaho and Montana but kept federal protections in places for wolves in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah. The agreement also called for a review of the minimum number of wolves needed to sustain the Northern Rockies population. The environmental groups hoped that review would require the states to maintain wolf populations above the 100 to 150 outlined in the 2009 rule.
"We are pretty sure any sort of review of the science would say the states need to maintain more than 100 wolves per state," said Mike Leahy, of the Defenders of Wildlife at Bozeman, Mont.
Leahy said he and others are still trying to influence the process but are pessimistic about their chances. They also fear the move to congressionally delist wolves will be tried with other protected animals.
"Now everybody and their brother who has a problem with an endangered species is going to run to Congress. It remains to be seen if they will have any luck but the precedent has been set."
The bill exempts the delisting rule from court challenge. But it does provide a way for wolves to return to federal protection in the future should their numbers drop dramatically.
There are more than 1,650 wolves in the Northern Rockies region and at least 700 in Idaho.
Barker may be contacted at ebarkerlmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273.
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