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Gray wolf protections on track to survive the current Congress


WASHINGTON — The gray wolf has been in danger in recent weeks of losing the federal protection that for decades has kept it from being hunted.

But the congressional ardor to end the protection — and make it easier to trap or shoot the wolves — is fading fast.

House Republicans last month passed legislation to remove gray wolves in 48 states from the list of species shielded by the Endangered Species Act, which could make it easier to kill them.

The removal of the act’s federal protections would leave laws regulating wolf killing up to the states. It would lift restrictions on logging, grazing and construction activities in wolf habitats that were previously prohibited by the act or required consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, according to Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire, who added that states could maintain their own restrictions.

But the House’s initiative has been stuck in the Senate, and with only days remaining in this year’s congressional session, key backers are not optimistic that bill will go anywhere.

Bills not enacted by Congress before its new session begins next month expire. That means the Manage Our Wolves Act would have to pass the House again in 2019 — a tougher task, as environmentally-friendly Democrats will run the House of Representatives.

Adam Sarvana, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who is in line to chair the House’s Natural Resources Committee, was clear about the bill’s prospects under Grijalva.

“There will not be any gray wolf delisting bills while he’s chairman,” Sarvana said.

In the Senate, plans to end federal protections for wolves have been met with resistance from Pacific Northwest senators like Patty Murray, D-Washington, who thinks “opening up the Endangered Species Act is not a good idea at this time.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, the chair of the Senate’s environment committee and a longtime advocate of removing wolves from the Endangered Species Act in his home state, acknowledged that Congress is busy with more monumental tasks, such as funding much of the government through next fall and passing legislation governing farm policy.

“I think that’s a lot of things trying to get done in a relatively short period of time, and (we) gotta make sure we get our priorities right on those,” he said.

Phil Davis, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in Cascade, Idaho, had four cows and calves killed in one week.

Ethan Lane, a lobbyist for beef producers who want wolves to be removed from the list of endangered species because they say wolves scare and attack ranchers’ cattle, said a different plan that would remove federal protections in only a handful of states has a better chance.

The HELP for Wildlife Act, a Senate bill, would remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Passage of that more limited bill would be a win for those like Barrasso who say the population has recovered and is “overrunning” the Great Lake states. Conservationists disagree, and contend that the wolf population still has a long way to go.

“Wolves have made an amazing recovery in many areas, but they are still very much in the beginning stages of recovery in a number of places, including in the western two thirds of Washington state, Oregon and California,” said Shawn Cantrell, a vice president with Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental organization.

Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin both support the more limited Senate bill, but said they have not yet had a chance to consider the more sweeping bill that passed the House.

“The state of Wisconsin has done an incredible job through all sorts of conservation practices … to bring the wolf population back,” Baldwin said. “So we’re very interested in addressing (ending federal protections).”

There’s a third way Congress could act on wolves: the House version of the bill that funds the Department of the Interior includes a provision that would end federal protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states, just like the bill the House passed last month. That language is not in the Senate spending bill.

Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, lead the Senate’s negotiations on spending bills, and “have made it their position to keep poison pill riders out of the appropriations bills,” according to Jay Tilton, a Leahy spokesman. A poison pill is a provision that could doom the entire spending package.

In Washington, the federal Endangered Species Act protects gray wolves in the western two thirds of the state. Throughout the state, the wolves are protected under state law.

Despite legal challenges, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has approved the killing of wolves in certain areas that attack livestock, reigniting controversy between ranchers and conservationists.

Wolves in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and part of Utah have already been removed from the endangered list because the populations there have recovered, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The House bill would target wolves in every other contiguous U.S. state.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is currently assessing the status of gray wolves and could recommend the removal of wolves from the endangered species list nationwide, which it sought the last time it reviewed the species’ status in 2013.

Shire said he’s not sure when the assessment will be finished, but stressed that the agency’s decision will not be impacted by congressional legislation.

Lane was wary of estimating the chances of ending federal protections for wolves by the end of the year, whether through existing legislation or a new bill not yet in existence.

“Lord only knows what they’re going to cook up here over the next few weeks,” he said.