Budget bill rider will delist wolves

Helena Independent Record

by Eve Byron

Grey wolves are poised to come off the list of endangered species after Congress passed a budget bill Thursday that includes the delisting of wolves in Idaho and Montana, and state officials already are discussing implementing a fall hunt.

The language in the bipartisan rider, authored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, “rolls back the clock” to restore a 2009 rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that delisted wolves and returns their management to the two states.

“They just tallied the vote — it was 81 to 19 — and we’ll be looking forward to some common-sense measures in dealing with the budget and how we manage wolves …” Tester said during a late-afternoon conference call with reporters. “This is a responsible step, and a step I think needed to happen. I have seen first-hand and heard about the impacts going on within our ecosystem, with domestic livestock and with wildlife, and I can tell you that even though there are some people out there who don’t think you have to manage wildlife species, you do.”

Tester’s measure now goes to the president, who is expected to sign it into law.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also hailed the final vote to delist wolves in Montana. He had co-sponsored similar legislation with Tester last September, and voted for the bill Thursday.

“Today we put an end to the hard-fought battle to rightly return wolves in Montana to Montana management,” Baucus said. “This is a huge victory for Montana and a common-sense solution that will deliver certainty to our ranchers, farmers and hunters once and for all. I was so proud to see us working together to push our bill over the finish line into law.”

Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., the state’s lone congressman in the House of Representatives, voted against the overall budget bill, saying he had problems with a variety of items it included.

“This budget simply failed to create an environment in which small business can thrive and create jobs, while it also undermines gun rights and supports an energy tax that hurts Montana’s economy and families,” Rehberg said.

At Thursday’s monthly Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting, FWP Director Joe Maurier said they are “cautiously optimistic” that the bill will finally resolve the wolf management issue. Federal officials have said the wolf population in the two states has been recovered since 2002, and have tried at various times to turn over management to those states.

Maurier noted that they may have an immediate issue to deal with, which involves a pending state bill calling for a spring wolf hunt if the state doesn’t hold a fall hunt.

“That could be a little tough on us because as a manner of course we don’t hunt animals when they’re carrying their young and giving birth,” Maurier said.

Commissioners agreed that a spring wolf hunt isn’t a good idea, but added that they’re looking forward to putting together something for the fall.

Maurier added that officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told him that by going back to the 2009 rule, they won’t need to go back for public comment.

“So (the delisting rule) will be published and as fast as humanly possible, it will become effective and that’s good for us,” Maurier said.

FWP Attorney Bob Lane said the USFWS told him the state could return to managing wolves within 30 days.

Some environmental groups decried the move, saying putting the rider on the must-pass federal budget bill sets a precedent for allowing Congress to delist species. They noted that the rider bans citizens from challenging the wolf delisting decision while preserving anti-wolf litigation brought by the state of Wyoming and others.

“In the 38-year history of the Endangered Species Act, Congress has never intervened to override the law and remove a plant or animal from federal protection,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, added that early in his campaign, Tester promised not to use riders to get legislation passed.

“He broke a promise he personally made to me, that he wouldn’t use riders to overturn court decisions, so he’s not a man of his word,” Garrity said. “I’m disappointed that he doesn’t keep his word.”

Suckling added that a poll shows Tester is running behind Rehberg, who is challenging Tester in the 2012 election. Suckling called the rider a move by Tester to boost his poll numbers.

“With Democrats like Tester, who needs Republicans?” Suckling said. “Jon Tester’s job creation agenda is concerned with only one job — his own. With the help of the White House and Senate leader Harry Reid, he has sacrificed wolves and the Endangered Species Act to cynical, self-interested politics.”

Tester, however, brushed off the criticism, saying that Congress has taken action on individual species, like when it forced the Department of Interior to adopt new rules that were more protective of polar bears.

As to whether the rider was politically motivated, Tester said he’s more concerned with doing the right thing than getting re-elected.

“Anybody who comes to the U.S. Senate with a mind toward re-election is doomed to make a lot of bad decisions,” Tester said. “I saw the wolf population at 1,700. I saw the decimation of livestock and wild game and quite frankly, knowing that wolves are at the top of the food chain and are fully recovered and have to be managed, that’s why I put this bill forward. This is about doing what’s right and this is the right move to make.”

Gov. Brian Schweitzer also praised the move.

“I welcome the delisting of the wolf in Montana through this budget resolution,” Schweitzer said. “This is a common-sense measure that will ensure good management of wolves through Montana’s existing plan, which allows for healthy numbers of wolves and safeguards the interests of ranchers and sportsmen.  I appreciate Sen. Tester’s efforts to shepherd this resolution through Congress for the benefit of all Montanans.”

Wolves once were common through the West, but were hunted and poisoned to near extermination in the early 1900s in the Rocky Mountains. They were reintroduced in the greater Yellowstone Park area beginning in 1995, and today about 1,700 roam the West.