CASPER, Wyo. — Congressional negotiators, at the insistence of the White House, killed a budget rider that would have prohibited lawsuits against a pending agreement to remove Wyoming wolves from the endangered species list, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said Friday.
The demise of the provision, which Lummis had tucked into an Interior Department appropriations bill, could open the door to lawsuits by environmental groups and others against the deal, reached in early August.
Under the agreement, negotiated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials and Gov. Matt Mead, the state’s roughly 243 wolves living outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation could be killed on sight in all but the northwest part of the state, where they would be designated as trophy game and could only be hunted with a license.
The plan also establishes a flex zone covering northern Sublette and Lincoln counties, as well as southern Teton County, in which wolves would be protected only from Oct. 15 until the end of the following February.
Wyoming has been trying for years to remove its wolves from the federal endangered species list amid complaints that the animals have preyed on livestock and reduced populations of game animals such as moose and elk.
But Fish and Wildlife had rejected all of Wyoming’s previous wolf management plans, saying unregulated shooting in most of the state would reduce the state’s wolf population below federally required levels.
The agreement is undergoing a federal public comment period, and still requires approval from the Wyoming Legislature. If it passes those hurdles, it could win final approval as soon as next summer — potentially leading to a wolf hunting season as soon as next fall.
Lummis’ wolf rider was included in the House version of the Interior appropriations bill, but the congresswoman said it was removed Wednesday night during negotiations between House and Senate appropriators, who on Thursday reached a $1 trillion federal spending agreement for 2012.
The wolf rider was one of the last remaining items of contention, but it was removed after the White House “said it was an absolute and total dealbreaker,” Lummis said.
A White House spokeswoman declined comment Friday afternoon.
While federal lawmakers don’t need to approve a Wyoming wolf deal, Mead and Wyoming’s congressional delegation have repeatedly said congressional protection against lawsuits is vital to any agreement that’s reached.
Lummis said that if she was a Wyoming state lawmaker now, having no protection against lawsuits would give her pause about whether to approve the wolf deal.
“It was a huge defeat for common sense,” she said.
Legislators had conflicting views about whether keeping the Wyoming wolf deal open to judicial review would affect whether the Legislature passes the wolf agreement during next year’s budget session.
House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington, said he expects lawmakers will be “cautious” about approving the deal and said that some legislators may argue for keeping the status quo. Buchanan himself said he’ll look at why opponents of the deal are objecting to it and the likelihood of a lawsuit before deciding how to vote on it himself.
But state Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said he didn’t expect lawmakers to change their votes based on whether there’s a no-litigation clause in place. A greater threat to the deal’s passage, he said, is if lawmakers vote to make significant changes to the original plan.
Congress passed a similar no-sue clause to a must-pass budget bill in April by U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and John Tester, both Montana Democrats, that delisted wolves in five other Western states.
However, several congressional observers said that Wyoming faced an uphill battle to achieve the same goal.
Lummis, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, received support for the wolf rider from House GOP leadership. But unlike Baucus and Tester, Wyoming’s U.S. senators are both Republicans, and thus have less influence in the Democratic-controlled chamber.
Besides opposition from the Obama administration, several environmental groups that were still smarting from the Baucus-Tester rider vowed to fight Wyoming’s attempt.
Doug Honnold of Earthjustice, a legal firm that represented a coalition of environmental groups that filed the Montana lawsuit, said he was “delighted” by the news that Lummis’ rider had been taken out of the spending bill.
“We firmly believe that micromanagement by backroom deals and appropriation riders is not good government. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why (the) Fish and Wildlife Service and the governor wouldn’t want to come up with a plan that would follow the law.”
The current wolf plan is the “kissing cousin” of Wyoming’s previously rejected plan, Honnold said. So if it wins final approval in its current form, Honnold said, “I suspect that there would be legal challenges to that.”
Mead was “disappointed” to hear that Lummis’ wolf rider was taken out of the Interior budget, said his spokesman, Renny MacKay.
However, MacKay said Mead is confident Wyoming’s congressional delegation will try again for a no-sue clause, possibly as a stand-alone bill.
“(Mead) will keep supporting any effort to get that legislation through, and he knows that the congressional delegation will too,” MacKay said.
However, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said in a statement that while Enzi will look to find a way to get a no-sue clause passed, a stand-alone bill “would most likely be blocked at this time.”
Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group opposed to Lummis’ wolf rider, said earlier this week that the Wyoming wolf issue was being overshadowed by a number of other GOP-sponsored environmental provisions in its version of the Interior appropriations bill, such as a clause that would exempt oil and utility companies from the Clean Air Act.
“This is a different situation than when you had Baucus and Tester doing it,” Snape said. “And Wyoming, arguably, missed the boat.”