CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A number of environmental groups and wolf opponents in Wyoming alike are vocally opposing a provision in the federal budget bill that would take wolves in Montana and Idaho off the endangered species list.
Meanwhile, members of Wyoming’s congressional delegation have been in discussions to ensure that Wyoming’s efforts to delist the state’s roughly 300 wolves aren’t derailed by the proposal.
The provision, added to the bipartisan budget bill by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Montana’s two Democratic U.S. senators, would restore a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruling calling for delisting of wolves in Idaho and Montana only.
The rule would not be subject to judicial review, and some fear that it would negate court decisions in Montana and Wyoming about state wolf policies.
Congressional budget negotiators agreed to add the provision just hours before a federal judge in Montana rejected a proposed court settlement between environmental groups and the federal government that would have returned wolves in Idaho and Montana to state control.
Lawmakers, including Jon Tester, of Montana, and Simpson, said they were pursuing congressional action out of concern that the agreement would be rejected in court and that wolves would remain under federal protection.
Observers on all sides said Monday that it was unclear exactly how the proposed “rider” in the budget would affect Wyoming, as the final language of the budget legislation wasn’t scheduled to be released until late that night.
But some in favor of Wyoming’s wolf management plan have worried that the provision could overrule U.S. District Judge Alan Johnson’s ruling last fall that U.S. Fish and Wildlife was wrong to reject the state’s plan, which would allow unregulated killing of wolves in all but the northwest corner of Wyoming.
Since January, Fish and Wildlife officials have been in talks with Gov. Matt Mead’s administration about forging a compromise plan.
“The very wording of the proposed amendment appears to be designed to nullify Judge Johnson’s decision in its entirety,” wrote Harriet Hageman, legal counsel for the Wyoming Wolf Coalition, in a March 17 email.
Asked Monday if she still held that view, Hageman said her “letter speaks for itself.”
But Doug Honnold of Earthjustice, a legal firm that represented a coalition of environmental groups that filed the Montana lawsuit, said the budget rider wouldn’t affect Wyoming until the state reached an agreement with Fish and Wildlife on a wolf management plan.
Some sporting groups that support delisting wolves have come out in favor of the budget provision. Among those groups are the National Rifle Association, the Boone and Crockett Club and Safari Club International.
“We will support any legislative efforts which take us closer to complete delisting of recovered populations,” said Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation President Jeff Crane in a March 17 letter to U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.
Enzi and Lummis have been in negotiations on Capitol Hill about the wolf provision, spokeswomen for the two lawmakers said Monday.
While neither spokeswoman offered details about what Enzi and Lummis were trying to accomplish, Enzi spokeswoman Elly Pickett said in an email that the general goal was “to ensure that Wyoming is not disadvantaged by any potential language” in the budget bill.
Wyoming Stock Growers Association Vice President Jim Magagna said he was “hopeful” for a last-minute wording change in the bill exempting Wyoming from the budget provision.
Meanwhile, wildlife advocates were scrambling on Monday to try to remove the provision from the budget bill altogether.
John Motsinger with Defenders of Wildlife told The Associated Press that his group would continue to fight the provision “until it’s a done deal.”
Honnold and other spokespeople for environmental groups said it would be the first time that Congress has voted to remove a species from the endangered species list.
“Having Congress come in and pick and choose winners and losers under the Endangered Species Act opens up the entire process to political considerations,” Honnold said.
“You have to ask what’s going to happen to species that don’t have that kind of public support (that wolves have) when they get in the way of economic interests or public interests.”
Magagna disputed the claim that Congress would be unilaterally removing wolves from the endangered species list. The provision, he said, would simply reassert an existing Fish and Wildlife ruling.
And, even if the provision is left unchanged and becomes law, Magagna said there would be a silver lining for groups that support Wyoming’s wolf plan.
“It sets a precedent of Congress affirming, basically, a Fish and Wildlife decision delisting wolves,” he said. “So, if we’re successful at some point at reaching some agreement with Fish and Wildlife in Wyoming ... I think we could make a pretty good argument to Congress that you need to do the same thing for us.”