Montana and Idaho could win back state management of gray wolves through legislation offered by Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester late Tuesday.
The state's two Democratic senators introduced their bill in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg drafted a bill removing wolves from Endangered Species Act protection on Sept. 15, but has not introduced it yet.
Baucus and Tester's bill would remove Rocky Mountain gray wolves from the federal threatened or endangered species lists in Montana and Idaho as soon as the Secretary of Interior approves each state's wolf management plans. Both states already have such plans, which would limit wolf numbers by both government and public hunting.
Rehberg's draft bill is considerably simpler. It would amend the Endangered Species Act to read: "Any Rocky Mountain gray wolf in Idaho or Montana shall not be treated as an endangered species," and would give those states "exclusive jurisdiction" to manage wolves.
Government wildlife managers estimate there are at least 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Montana is believed to have at least 524 wolves and 37 breeding pairs.
"No one - especially the federal government - knows how to manage wolves in Montana better than Montanans," Baucus said Tuesday. "Montana's successful management plan and wolf hunt have protected ranchers and wolves. The debate has gone on long enough. This plan is a real, lasting solution that gives our Montana ranchers and hunters the certainty they deserve while recognizing the good science and management practices on the ground."
Neither the Senate nor the House bill addresses Wyoming's wolves.
Wyoming failed to develop a wolf management plan acceptable to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which prompted the agency to delist wolves in Montana and Idaho but not Wyoming.
Then U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula ruled it was illegal to treat states separately when wolves roam freely across all three states. The decision returned wolves to their Endangered Species Act protection in Montana and Idaho, canceling this fall's scheduled public wolf hunts.
"The Endangered Species Act shouldn't allow one state to hold another hostage," Tester said. "This legislation is a sensible proposal for a complicated issue that directly affects a lot of folks in Montana. It restores Montana's ability to manage wolves in a way that works for ranchers, hunters and wolves, and it includes fair safeguards should Montana's wolf numbers ever get too low. I look forward to discussing the future of wolves and the next course of action in the coming weeks."
Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said no public listening sessions are scheduled yet. Both senators are expected back in the state for several weeks after the Senate goes on recess, which could occur within the week.
Rehberg has already scheduled listening sessions for his draft bill on Oct. 5 in Dillon at 9 a.m. on the University of Montana Western campus and in Hamilton at 3 p.m. in the Hamilton Performing Arts Center, followed by a Kalispell session on Oct. 6 at 10 a.m. at Flathead Valley Community College.
The senators' move won praise from the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Farm Bureau and the Montana Wildlife Federation. Wolf advocates have criticized the move, arguing the Endangered Species Act should be governed by science rather than politics.
"We are concerned that Congress is only further polarizing the wolf issue," Greater Yellowstone Coalition spokesman Jeff Welsch said in a news release. "GYC has made it clear we're willing to come to the table and talk about how to resolve the issues surrounding wolves in the Northern Rockies.
"The Endangered Species Act is an effective law that has worked for four decades and should remain intact," he added. "Legislating wildlife management is how Wyoming wound up in its current mess."
Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Ben Lamb argued the bill would have the opposite effect.
"This bill helps restore the balance that we have been working toward since the first delisting back in 2008," Lamb wrote. "Most importantly, it preserves the intent and the integrity of the Endangered Species Act in light of continued litigation and unnecessary stonewalls."
Neither of the bills is expected to see formal congressional action until Congress reconvenes after Election Day.