CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming is excluded from an attachment in the federal budget bill that takes wolves off the endangered-species list across most of the northern Rockies, but state officials expressed hope Tuesday that the expected congressional action would pave the way for eventual delisting in the Cowboy State.
Wildlife advocates conceded Tuesday that the wolf provision was all but certain to remain in the spending bill after efforts to remove it failed. Congress faces a tight deadline on a budget already months overdue, and the rider has bipartisan support.
It orders the Obama administration to lift protections for wolves within 60 days in five Western states, but not Wyoming.
Wolf hunting would resume this fall in Idaho and Montana, where an estimated 1,250 of the animals have been blamed in hundreds of livestock attacks and for declines seen in some big game herds. Wolves also would be returned to state management in Washington, Oregon and Utah.
Lawmakers said they inserted the rider to circumvent a federal judge who repeatedly blocked proposals to delist wolves. The legislation would block further court intervention.
Wyoming wasn't included in the legislation because its wolf management plan hasn't been accepted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Under the state's plan, wolf hunting would be regulated only in the northwest part of the state. State and federal officials are in negotiations to resolved their differences, and Gov. Matt Mead said Tuesday that he hopes for congressional action on a Wyoming plan similar to that expected for neighboring states.
"While I wish Wyoming would've been part of that (provision), I think the good news about that is there's a recognition, at least by some in Congress — and hopefully the president as well — that a congressional fix is needed. Because from whatever perspective you have, working this process through the court system has not proved fruitful in trying to get on with a management plan for any of the states," Mead said during an appearance in Casper. "So that's a bit of a silver lining in looking at that language, but I do think it's an indication that some in Congress hopefully recognize that a congressional fix is needed."
Wildlife advocates had sought to stop the legislation through a settlement on the issue with the Obama administration announced last month. But that settlement was scuttled in court by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who cited dissension among some environmentalists who characterized the deal as politically motivated sellout.
Mike Leahy, with Defenders of Wildlife, said the time to head off congressional action "has come and gone." He said his group was turning its attention to the states, in hopes of averting overhunting that could drive wolves again to the brink of extinction.
"The real threat here is the states grinding down wolf populations in response to anti-wolf rhetoric over time," Leahy said. "They can chip away at the population and manage them down to 100, 150 wolves if they want."
Wyoming lawmakers managed to insert language into the bill specifying that it wouldn't affect a lawsuit by the state against the federal government over wolves. U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson in Cheyenne last year ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to have rejected Wyoming's dual-status wolf plan, but he only ordered the government to reconsider the plan — not necessarily accept it. Some had feared that congressional action shielding delisting in the other states from court review would nullify Johnson's ruling.
"This language removes obstacles that would have otherwise hindered discussions on the status of the fully recovered gray wolf in Wyoming," Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said in a media release. "Returning management of the gray wolf to the state of Wyoming is the ultimate goal. Much work remains, but with this provision intact, I am confident we are closer than ever to realizing a full delisting. I look forward to that happy day."
Before Johnson's ruling, Montana-based Molloy had found fault with Wyoming's plan.
Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council complained that the congressional action amounts to lawmakers siding with Johnson over Molloy.
"(W)hat I definitely don't cotton to is Congress (especially as part of a budget negotiation!) picking and choosing between opinions like this," Wetzler wrote on Tuesday. "We ought to leave the the Endangered Species Act up to the scientists, who carry it out, and to the judiciary, who interpret its meaning."
He called for the Fish and Wildlife Service to "give Wyoming thorough scrutiny" and said his organization would "be monitoring the Wyoming process carefully."
Mead acknowledged that there are no guarantees that Congress will embrace a Wyoming wolf plan with action similar to that expected this week for the other states. But that possibility constitutes the "silver lining" from the delisting rider.
"My hope is, in my discussions with Fish and Wildlife Service and (U.S. Interior Secretary Ken) Salazar, is that they will not view this as a muddying of the waters, but as a path that Wyoming can take as well in having a congressionally approved fix," Mead said. "I am viewing it now as a model for something that could be done in Wyoming. ... If we get something that's acceptable in Wyoming, the Fish and Wildlife Service, hopefully they will say, 'Listen, we did this for Idaho and Montana, Wyoming's got a plan that is good -- let's do it for Wyoming as well.'"
Wolves were wiped out across most of the United States last century under a government bounty program established to benefit the agriculture industry. They were reintroduced to Wyoming and Idaho in the mid-1990s, and at least 1,651 now roam parts of five states.
Only a few dozen of the animals so far have colonized Washington and Oregon, and no packs are known to exist in Utah.
Idaho and Montana officials were forced to cancel wolf hunts planned last year when Molloy restored protections for the species. Those plans are expected to be updated to allow hunting this fall for potentially hundreds of wolves.