Advocates of federal protection for gray wolves in Idaho won a tentative victory on Saturday as a district judge struck down a settlement that would have given Idaho and Montana management of their wolf populations.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula rejected an agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 10 conservation groups that would have removed wolves from the list of endangered species and returned the species to the management of state wildlife departments rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which currently monitors the populations.
The 24-page decision states that the court does not have authority to put part of a species under state management.
"Congress has clearly determined that animals on the ESA must be protected as such," Molloy wrote. "[The court can't] allow what Congress forbids."
The decision follows the Idaho Legislature's passage Friday of a bill that declares a state of emergency regarding wolves and authorizes Gov. Butch Otter to enlist local law enforcement to kill wolves that threaten people, livestock or wildlife.
Wolf rider part of budget
Even as Molloy moved to retain federal wolf protections, Congress took another step toward removing those same protections with a rider on the pending budget bill.
Unlike previous stand-alone bills, the budget rider would not exclude wolves from the purview of the Endangered Species Act. Instead, it would delist them and insulate the decision from any legal challenge.
The budget rider has been in the works for months, originally introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, as part of a concurrent resolution in the House.
The provision directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reissue its 2009 decision to delist wolves in Idaho and Montana. The decision was overturned in August 2010 when Molloy ruled that delisting decisions must include entire biological populations.
Simpson said the bill would restore wolf management to the states and lift "unnecessary" protections.
"Without the passage of my language, wolves would remain under unnecessary federal protection indefinitely," Simpson stated in a news release. "Wolf populations in the West far exceed recovery goals."
Suzanne Stone, spokeswoman for national advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, said the budget rider was a move of "desperation" for Congress.
"Congress is choosing to turn their backs on the future of wolves," she said in a news release. "Both the Idaho and Montana legislatures are moving statewide legislation to greatly expand wolf killing, and we can only expect that their unjustified campaigns to wipe out wolves will begin immediately."
Andrew Wetzler, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said delisting still affords species a limited amount of protection through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"If Idaho decides it's going to kill every wolf in Idaho, the Fish and Wildlife Service can practice some discretion," Wetzler said.
The concern many wildlife advocates have with the bill is that, like the bills introduced last year, it sets a precedent by which Congress can overrule the science-based decisions issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Up to this point, our decisions on conservation issues have been based on science," said Josh Mogerman, another spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "What this does is states that through the budget, politicians for the first time will decide what will get protection and what doesn't."
Mogerman said recovery of wolves is far from determined, citing "robust" scientific debate on the issue. However, he said, he's more concerned over the way in which Congress is attempting to force delisting.
"This is an anti-Democratic way to deal with this issue," he said. "Certainly Congress has the power to make laws and to change them, but what we find so egregious is that this is taking place in backroom budget discussions."
Mogerman and Wetzler argue that the bill should be a stand-alone bill, voted on separately in Congress and debated on the floor. Mogerman said that the wolf bills introduced last year were "horrible," but that they were better than the budget rider because they were debated openly.
"This shouldn't be slipped into a must-pass budget bill," he said.
The budget and accompanying rider will be considered by Congress later this week.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com