KALISPELL, Mont. -- Rep. Denny Rehberg, who manages a ranch outside Billings, Mont., knows quite literally what it means to have the wolf at the door: Several years ago, a single wolf got into his pasture and killed 51 prized cashmere goats.
"'Shoot, shovel and shut up' is a joke in Montana," said Rehberg, referring to a longstanding reference among landowners across the West -- perhaps only half in jest -- to the best way to deal with a federally protected endangered species like the gray wolf.
The reintroduction of the wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains has been so contentious that Rehberg, a Republican, is joining a group of congressmen preparing an unusual move to aim their weapons at the Endangered Species Act itself.
Bills introduced in Congress over the last few weeks would either remove the act's protection of wolves in the Northwest or, as proposed by Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, prohibit any listing at all of the once nearly extinct predator. Biologists say that outcome could jeopardize recovery efforts in the Southwest and Midwest and in fledgling new populations in Washington and Oregon.
The 1973 act, the nation's landmark species protection law, has rarely been amended, and conservationists say the bills mark a significant shift in the enduring contest between mining, timber and ranching interests and the plants and animals often squeezed out by human expansion.
"Heretofore there's been fairly strong bipartisan support of the sort of Noah's Ark notion that if we're serious about our moral commitment to share the planet with our fellow inhabitants, we don't start throwing identified species off the ark," said Douglas Honnold of the public interest legal organization Earthjustice, which has been fighting to expand wolf protections in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
"I think to a large degree it would really be unprecedented," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If passed, any of these bills will rip the heart out of the Endangered Species Act and set a terrible precedent for wildlife management generally."
Government officials in Montana and Idaho say that after 15 years of trying to follow the letter of the law in restoring wolves around Yellowstone National Park, they have been rewarded with a large and growing wolf population that threatens livestock and game animals like elk, as well as hunters and hikers in the backcountry.
"They're everywhere. There's a problem that's got to be controlled, and now's the time to do it," Ed Jonas, a rancher from Rollins, Mont., said at a meeting Rehberg convened here and in two other towns last week.
"Two times in the last two weeks, I've been out there in the middle of the night with a rifle because my coon hound was chasing something. You don't sleep well anymore because you don't know when you wake up if you're going to have all live animals," he said.
The original target was 300 wolves spread across the three states. Officials now estimate there are more than 1,700 wolves; conservationists say about 2,000 are necessary for full recovery.
"It's not that we want to gut the Endangered Species Act. It's not that we want to destroy a species. It's that we want some finality," Rehberg said at the Kalispell meeting. "We met the threshold, and now the courts have changed the goal lines. That's the problem."
The act's protections were lifted in Montana and Idaho in 2007, clearing the way for the states' first legal hunts last year. Restrictions were kept in place in Wyoming, where officials have held out for the right to shoot wolves on sight outside a narrow protected area near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Wyoming's intransigence proved to be the undoing of the progress that had been made in the two neighboring states; U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in August that the government couldn't continue to call the wolves endangered in Wyoming but recovered in Montana and Idaho.
The wolves were relisted, this year's hunts were canceled, wolf populations have continued to increase, and ranchers and elk hunters say they have reached the end of their rope.
"We held up our part of the bargain. But the rules keep changing," said Jon Hanian, spokesman for Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, a Republican. "People are expressing their frustration, and it's at a boiling point."
Similar disputes have been ongoing in the Midwest over protection of wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and in the Southwest, where federal biologists are attempting to bolster the population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico.
In Oregon, Rehberg's "shoot, shovel and shut up" dictum has come into play: A $7,500 private reward has been offered for information about the Sept. 30 shooting of a radio-collared wolf in the Umatilla National Forest.
On Sept. 22, Idaho Republican Sens. Michael D. Crapo and Jim Risch introduced legislation to delist wolves through most of the northern Rockies.
Edwards' bill goes a step further, removing wolves from the act's purview across the country.
On Sept. 28, Montana's two Democratic U.S. senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, introduced their bill to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana and place the animals under state management plans that, as currently written, could take wolf populations down as low as the original target of 300 animals.
"This bill provides a common-sense solution that will put wolves in Montana back in Montana's control," Baucus said in a statement. "The debate has gone on long enough."
Only twice before have special provisions been carved out of the Endangered Species Act, beginning with a 1978 amendment passed as a result of the controversy over the snail darter blocking a Tennessee Valley Authority dam.
It allows a Cabinet-level committee known as the "God Squad" to deliberate especially problematic listings. The committee was convened in the 1991 controversy over the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest and cleared the way for some timber sales within the owl's habitat.
In neither case was there a wholesale exemption from the act for a species.
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