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A measure taking gray wolves off federal Endangered Species Act protection made it into the must-pass U.S. Senate budget bill late Monday night.

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both Democrats, placed a rider in the 2011 Appropriations Bill reauthorizing a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule delisting the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains.

The move gives Montana and Idaho wildlife agencies management authority over the predator, which would allow the return of public wolf hunting. And it would block any further court action on the FWS rule.

The rider also opens the door for Wyoming to join the local-control wolf club. Its final sentence lets stand an October Wyoming federal court decision that found Wyoming's wolf management plan was illegally rejected. Wyoming was originally left out of the 2009 rule because its plan made wolves trophy hunting animals around Yellowstone National Park, but classified them as shoot-on-sight predators everywhere else in the state.

Wolves in Washington, Oregon and Utah would also be put under state control by the rider. Those states have relatively tiny wolf populations, compared to the nearly 1,700 wolves in the Montana-Idaho-Wyoming area.

Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson placed identical language in the House version of the budget bill, giving the measure bipartisan momentum. The full budget bill should be voted on late Thursday or Friday.

A coalition of 14 environmental and conservation groups successfully blocked the rule with a U.S. District Court decision last August, returning the wolf to the endangered species list. But as the risk of a congressionally forced solution grew, 10 of those groups proposed in March a settlement with the government very similar to the Tester-Baucus rider. It would reinstate the 2009 delisting but preserve all parties' right to return to court.

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy rejected the settlement, saying it wasn't fair to the four environmental groups that didn't want to give up their court victory. He also argued the deal didn't fix legal problems with the 2009 delisting he found unacceptable.

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The congressional move would erase Molloy's Aug. 5 ruling. Montana Wildlife Federation conservation director Ben Lamb worked with Tester and Baucus to craft the language.

"The science is crystal-clear that wolves are recovered," Lamb said. "What we're fighting about is the mechanics of delisting."

Lamb said research from the University of Montana and FWS concluded wolves were dispersing and breeding across the three-state area well enough to ensure a healthy population and would continue to do so even at lower numbers proposed by the state management plans. He suggested that the political wolf debate had become more important than the science as opposing groups use the topic to rally members and raise funds.

"There's such a money machine around these animals, and the money says keep them listed," Lamb said. "It's not just on the environmental side - it's on the (anti-wolf) extremist side, too. If this issue goes away, they lose a lot of money."

Many wolf advocates argued for a different scientific threshold, where at least 2,000 to 5,000 wolves were needed in the northern Rocky Mountains to maintain a healthy population.

"Tester's rider is not only a disaster for wolf recovery, it opens the door for every self-interested politician to try to strip protection away from local endangered species," emailed Kieran Suckling, director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that tried to settle with the federal government. "We'll fight this rider to the bitter end, but the chances of killing it are slim, especially since the rejection of our legal settlement with the Department of the Interior took away our only leverage to rally senators against the rider."

The National Rifle Association's legislative action director Chris Cox supported the rider, but predicted more action was imminent.

"With recovered populations of wolves across the Northwest, this Congressional action sends an important message to anti-hunting extremists - politics and legal wrangling are not welcome when it comes to conservation," Cox said in an email. "Hunters are the true conservationists and wolves simply need to be managed through regulated hunting like so many other species. The partial delisting is a good start and we will be focused on a more comprehensive solution moving forward."

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., voiced a similar opinion. Rehberg authored a stand-alone bill that would have stripped wolves from all ESA supervision, but that measure has not received any congressional action.

"In light of who currently controls the Senate and White House, this is probably the best deal we can hope for in the next two years, and I'll take it," Rehberg said in an email. "I still prefer a solution that fully turns management over to the states, but that's just not going to be possible unless Congress decides to stand up to the radical urban environmentalists who think they know how to manage our land better than we do in Montana. I'm going to keep working so we never have to have this fight with the feds again."

 

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