BILLINGS — A group of Democratic lawmakers on Thursday urged the Biden administration to enact emergency protections for gray wolves in the U.S. West in response to Republican-backed state laws that make it easier to kill the predators.
Twenty-one U.S. senators led by New Jersey's Cory Booker and Michigan's Gary Peters asked Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to shield wolves from being killed for 240 days while permanent protections are considered.
With hunts in the region ongoing, a federal wildlife agency spokesperson told The Associated Press that emergency protection of wolves "remains on the table."
It's been legal to hunt and trap wolves in the U.S. Northern Rockies for the past decade, after they rebounded from widespread extermination and federal endangered species protections were lifted.
But Republican officials in Montana and Idaho are intent on culling more wolf packs. Wolves periodically attack livestock and also prey on elk and deer herds that many hunters prize.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month launched a year-long review to determine if protections need to be restored. The move did nothing to protect wolves in the interim, and Yellowstone National Park administrators have since complained after three wolves from a pack popular with tourists were killed after roaming into Montana.
"If continued unabated for this hunting season, these extreme wolf eradication policies will result in the deaths of hundreds of gray wolves," the Democratic lawmakers said in a letter to Haaland. "The Department of Interior can prevent these senseless killings."
The letter was signed by senators including from California and Nevada in the West, but no Northern Rockies lawmakers.
In 2011, Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson successfully attached a budget "rider" that legislatively delisted wolves in the two states along, with Oregon, Washington and Utah.
On Thursday, Tester's office said he opposes the push for emergency protections from his Democratic colleagues but will follow the year-long federal review of Montana's and Idaho's new laws.
“Sen. Tester successfully led the charge to return management of gray wolves to the state of Montana and does not believe an emergency protection order is necessary at this time," a spokesperson for the senator said. "Any decisions impacting the future management of our wildlife always need to be based on the best available science, and not driven by politics.
"New laws and management policies do raise real questions about these populations, and Sen. Tester looks forward to hearing what the scientists at Fish and Wildlife Service have to say after taking a long hard look at the facts on the ground.”
Federal officials under former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump defended the 2011 decision to take wolves off the endangered list, pointing to wolf populations that remained strong despite hunting. There are more than 3,000 wolves in the region, including an estimated 1,500 in Idaho and 1,200 in Montana.
Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines suggested the Democrats pressuring Haaland should “study the data."
“Then they might know the gray wolf is thriving under state-led management," Daines said. “We should use our limited resources to protect species actually endangered.”
Native American groups and environmentalists have previously requested an emergency listing of wolves as an endangered species.
Federal officials said in response that temporary protections can't be enacted through the legal petitions they received. However, the Endangered Species Act gives Haaland authority to do so if she determines there is a significant threat to a species.
“Emergency listing remains on the table if the Service sees circumstances that develop that would lead us to apply that authority,” Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs chief Karen Armstrong said in an email.
Thirty-six wolves have been killed in Montana since the current hunting and trapping season opened last month, according to state harvest data. While it's still early in the season, that's not out of line with past years, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Greg Lemon.
"We've had years where we've been over that number at this point in the season, and years where we've been less than this," Lemon said.
Over 320 wolves were harvested during Montana's 2020 hunting season — significantly more than the preceding eight-year average of 242 wolves per year, according to officials. That was before Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed legislation that legalized wolf snaring and pushed killing methods including baiting and night hunting.
A new law in Idaho eased wolf hunting restrictions to allow using night-vision equipment with a permit, using bait and dogs, and allowing hunting from motor vehicles.
Hunters and trappers reported killing 89 wolves through Monday in Idaho. That's down from the same point last year but likely to rise because hunters and trappers have 10 days to report a wolf kill, said Idaho Fish and Game spokesperson Roger Phillips.
To protect wolves around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, wildlife advocacy groups on Wednesday asked federal officials to impose a 5-mile buffer zone near park boundaries where wolves could not be hunted.
The Montana State News Bureau contributed to this story.