The U.S. Senate passed a budget bill Thursday that will return gray wolf management to Montana and Idaho state control, settling the question whether the predator is endangered or recovered.
"Our provision does not undermine the Endangered Species Act," said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who led the effort to delist the wolf in Congress. "It recognizes the ESA as a success."
Under a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisting rule, wolves reached the numbers needed for full recovery in 2002, Tester said in a conference call Thursday afternoon. There are almost 1,700 animals in the three-state area, including about 600 in Montana.
Tester and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson each inserted a rider in their respective Senate and House budget bills ordering the 2009 FWS decision to become law. Their legislation also shielded the action from further court review and gave Wyoming a chance to restart its wolf-management plan negotiations with FWS.
The move angered both pro- and anti-wolf groups. Wolf advocates accused Tester of politically intervening in a scientific decision. Wolf opponents said the measure wouldn't do enough to bring wolf populations under local control.
The rider allows Montana and Idaho to resume state management of wolves within their boundaries, including public wolf hunting seasons. It would also allow people to shoot wolves threatening their domestic livestock or pets.
Still, the population may not go below a minimum of 300 wolves in those two states, although state management plans call for higher thresholds.
Blackfoot Valley rancher and outfitter Jack Rich joined Tester on the conference call. He said his family initially supported reintroduction of wolves, and then backed calls for its delisting.
"I think it's equally important to balance a healthy wolf population with other wildlife resources," Rich said. "Our family's livelihood depends on that sound management. Tester's bill finally brings some sound management that's been overdue in our minds for nearly 10 years."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to delist wolves in 2008, but the decision was tabled between the change of the Bush administration and the Obama administration. It was reissued in 2009, and promptly challenged in court by a coalition of 14 environmental and conservation groups.
The coalition successfully blocked the rule with a U.S. District Court decision last August, returning gray wolves to federal protection throughout the northern Rocky Mountains. The ruling found the 2009 rule legally flawed because it attempted to manage a species by state boundaries instead of by natural population habitat.
Montana Wildlife Federation conservation director Ben Lamb said the court decision paved the way for a congressional solution.
"If you want wolves delisted in these states, you have to take it back to Congress, and that's exactly what has been done here," Lamb said. "It was the only avenue left to get the states that have done everything they were asked to do by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the wolves. They have shown a commitment to manage for biological diversity, species connectivity and social tolerances."
Wolves in Washington, Oregon and Utah will also be put under state control by the rider. Those states have relatively tiny wolf populations, numbering in the low dozens.
Montana Sen. Max Baucus joined Tester in placing the rider in the Senate budget bill. Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg voted against the House version of the budget bill on Thursday, although he'd earlier pledged to take the "best deal we can hope for in the next two years."
The budget bill passed the Senate 81-19. It is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama in the next few days.
With the bill's passage, however, legal experts warned the Obama administration's support for lifting wolf protections opens the door to future meddling by lawmakers catering to anti-wildlife interests.
The Endangered Species Act has long been reviled by conservatives who see it as a hindrance to economic development. Now, the administration's support for the wolf provision signals that protections for even the most imperiled animals, fish and plants are negotiable given enough political pressure, experts said.
"The president could have used some political capital to influence this and he didn't," said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law from the Vermont Law School. "The message to the environmental community is, don't count on the administration to be there" to protect endangered species.
Environmentalists still count Obama as an ally on other issues, ranging from climate change and wilderness preservation to oil and gas exploration. Yet experts in wildlife law say that in the scramble to pass the budget, the administration is circumventing one of the country's bedrock environmental laws.
That's a bitter pill for conservationists, who hoped a Democratic White House would more aggressively protect a law many say was ignored under the Bush administration.
The next potential blow already is looming. A 2012 budget request from the Department of Interior would impose a sharp spending cap on a program that allows citizens to petition for species to be listed as endangered.
Those petitions were used for the majority of the species added to the list over the last four decades.
"We are having the worst attack on the Endangered Species Act in 30 years while we have a Democratic Senate and a Democratic White House," said Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity. "They are trying to shut citizens and scientists out of the endangered species process."
To date, the Obama administration has listed 59 species as endangered - a rate of about 30 a year, according to Suckling's group, which closely tracks endangered species issues.
That's up significantly from the Bush years, when the average was eight per year, but far behind the 65 species per year under the Clinton administration.