HELENA - Gray wolves returned to the crosshairs of Montana's congressional delegation Wednesday.
Rep. Denny Rehberg announced the introduction of two pieces of legislation that would permanently remove them from the protections of the Endangered Species Act, and Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to allow hunting of wolves in Montana to control their population growth.
"A regulated hunt of wolves is well within the scope of the Endangered Species Act, and will enhance the management of wolves in the state and throughout the region," wrote Tester, chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus. "Allowing a regulated hunt will expand the state's management options for this predator and restore balance to the system. This action will protect elk and livestock, while not jeopardizing the gray wolf recovery."
Rehberg's legislation takes the issue one step further, seeking to remove federal oversight from wolf management altogether. One bill, cosponsored by Republican Idaho congressmen Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador would permanently remove wolves from federal protection and return wolf management authority to Montana and Idaho.
The second bill says the Endangered Species Act shall not apply to gray wolves anywhere in the United States. It has bipartisan support, with cosponsors including five democrats and 10 republicans, mainly from western states.
"The gray wolf isn't endangered, which is why Republicans and Democrats alike are joining forces to end the misuse of the Endangered Species Act to advance extremist policy agendas," Rehberg said. "I heard from thousands of Montanans, and folks get it. They know that states are better at managing our own local wildlife than the federal government thousands of miles away.
"Unless there's a darn good reason - and there's not - the federal government has no business getting involved."
The two tactics are part of the ongoing debate over whether the gray wolf populations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are sufficiently recovered to the point that they no longer need classification as an endangered species. They were put on the list in 1974, having almost been wiped out in the northern Rockies by hunting, trapping and poisoning.
Between natural migration from Canada and the reintroduction of the species in the mid 1990s near Yellowstone National Park, the three states now are home to about 1,700 in the northern Rocky Mountains.
They were delisted in Montana and Idaho by both the Obama and Bush administrations, but returned to the list of protected species last August by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy. He ruled that they can't be considered recovered in two states but not in the adjoining one.
The reason for the discrepancy is that the Salazar's agency approved management plans by Idaho and Montana, but wouldn't do that for Wyoming since that state wanted them to be managed as predators that could be shot on site except for in areas near Yellowstone.
Montana continues to manage wolves under the agreement with the state, but Idaho has returned those duties - and associated costs - to the federal government.
Both Montana and Idaho allowed wolves to be hunted in 2009, trying to keep the population from growing. However, along with the return to the list of Endangered Species came the need for approval by the federal governments for additional wolf hunts, and despite repeated requests that hasn't happened.
In his letter to Salazar, Tester said a wolf hunt will "reduce the mounting pressure of a population of wolves which have surpassed the Department of Interior's expectations of a successful recovery."
"(Wolves') unbridled growth impacts Montana's iconic wild game such as elk, deer, and moose, as well as Montana's livestock," he wrote. "... The current impasse is a great frustration to sportsmen and economically damaging to ranchers in my state, and it must be resolved.
"The first step in expanding state discretion is granting a conservation hunt of gray wolves to restore the full range of tools to manage this species."
Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at 447-4076 or at firstname.lastname@example.org