Congress passed legislation Thursday removing Montana and Idaho wolves from the Endangered Species list and returning management to the states, as part of a budget bill to continue federal funding this year.
The legislation was advanced by Montana Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, along with Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, in the House.
Tester said the overall package is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama.
“This is more than a victory for Montana,” Tester said. “It’s a win for America, for jobs and for our wildlife — and it’s what’s right for the wolves themselves. This was never going to get done with partisan games or grandstanding. We fixed this problem with Montana values -- by putting aside our differences and working together on a responsible, common-sense plan.”
The legislation effectively “rolls back the clock” to restore a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule that delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho, allowing those states to proceed with a regulated wolf hunt. Wyoming’s wolf population was excluded from delisting then and it will continue to be.
However, the rider does provide for state management authority over wolves in Washington, Oregon and Utah. Language in the rider specifies that reissuance of the 2009 rule “shall not be subject to judicial review.”
Wolf advocates conceded earlier this week that the delisting legislation could not be stopped.
Mike Leahy, representing Defenders of Wildlife, told the Associated Press that the opportunity to head off congressional action “has come and gone,” and that his group will turn its attention to influence state policies for managing wolves.
Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen predicted the congressional action would undermine the ESA.
“Although the immediate legislative threat is to wolves, the bigger threat is to all protected species, polar bears, grizzly bears, whales and salmon among many,” Van Noppen stated in a press release. “These animals are now vulnerable by the precedent of Congress substituting their political views for those of wildlife experts. This puts us on a path toward dismantling the Endangered Species Act by many individual attacks.”
Earthjustice played a leading role in litigation aimed at derailing delisting efforts in recent years. Last summer, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula ruled that wolves in the Northern Rockies could not be legally separated along state lines, effectively restoring full protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana.
Seeing congressional legislation on the horizon, most plaintiffs involved in the case recently agreed to a settlement that would restore Idaho and Montana state management authority over wolves. Molloy, however, rejected the settlement on April 9, noting that the settlement probably would not avert congressional action anyway.
Even if the budget rider didn’t advance, there are a variety of delisting bills waiting in the wings that had strong support among western lawmakers.
Conservation groups were licking their wounds after Congress's actions.
"Never before has Congress stripped Endangered Species Act protections for one particular species, putting politics above sound science and our national commitment to conserving America's wildlife," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "Congress is selling out America's wolves, and in the process is also undermining not only one of our greatest wildlife conservation successes, but also the Endangered Species Act, one of the world's most far-sighted conservation laws. This provision sets a terrible precedent that could be regarded as an invitation to other legislation to strip protections for any other endangered species that a politician finds inconvenient to protect."
But Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer praised the legislation.
“I welcome the delisting of the wolf in Montana through this budget resolution,” he said. “This is a common sense measure that will ensure good management of wolves through Montana’s existing plan, which allows for healthy numbers of wolves and safeguards the interests of ranchers and sportsmen.”
Montana’s plan provides for a quota-based, regulated hunt. Quotas are adjusted for wolf hunting districts based on factors such as wolf numbers, the presence of livestock, and wolf impacts on deer and elk.
Montana’s wolf population has exceeded established recovery goals for nearly a decade.