BILLINGS – Gray wolves in Montana and Idaho would lose their Endangered Species Act protections and become fair game for hunters under a provision buried deep in a U.S. Senate budget bill introduced Friday.
The provision was included in a broad measure introduced by Democrats to fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year.
The one-paragraph passage on wolves — which appears on page 253 of the bill and doesn’t mention the animals by name — is identical to language in a budget measure that passed the House last month.
It would require Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to reissue within 60 days a 2009 agency rule meant to turn over control of wolves to state wildlife officials.
That rule was tossed out last year by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula. Like the House measure, the Senate’s would shield Salazar’s actions from court review — denying wildlife advocates what has proven their most effective tactic to keep wolves protected.
The predators once roamed throughout North America, but were exterminated across most of the lower 48 states by the 1930s. An estimated 1,400 wolves are in Montana and Idaho.
The animals have made a dramatic comeback since being reintroduced to the Northern Rockies beginning in 1995. Hundreds are killed every year by government wildlife agents in response to livestock attacks.
State officials say public hunting is the preferable method for dealing with such attacks, but conservation groups say the states should not be trusted to protect wolves in the long term.
About 300 of the animals reside in neighboring Wyoming. Lawmakers from the state so far have been unsuccessful in trying to get those animals included in Congress’ efforts to lift protections for wolves.
An attempt by U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican, was blocked last month on procedural grounds.
Another fellow Wyoming Republican, Sen. John Barrasso, has said he will continue working to get wolf protections removed in his state as part of the pending budget measure.
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