Gray wolf population could lose federal protection under GOP bill

Republicans have only a few weeks left until they cede control of the House to Democrats, but the first big post-election GOP vote won’t address taxes or border wall funding.

It involves wolves.

Republicans are furiously pushing legislation that would remove gray wolves in the 48 contiguous U.S. states from the list of threatened and endangered animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, which safeguards those animals’ habitats. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill Friday.

In Washington state, the federal act protects gray wolves in the western two thirds of the state. Throughout the state, the wolves are protected under state law.

Despite legal challenges, the state’s Department of Fish & Wildlife has approved the killing of wolves who attack livestock, reigniting controversy between ranchers and conservationists.

Wolves in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and part of Utah have already been removed from the endangered list because the populations there have recovered, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Congress returned this week for a post-election session that’s expected to last about a month. Republicans are eager to get the bill passed in this lame duck session, figuring that once Democrats take control in January, conservationists will make it tough to get it enacted.

“This is bipartisan. But still, I think it fits easier on our agenda,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who chairs the House Rules Committee that approved rules of debate for the wolf bill. “I think it makes it harder when there’s a new Congress.”

Sessions said both Republicans and Democrats from western states, where many gray wolves in the U.S. live, made a push to get the bill through.

“I hope that there’s agreement that it needs to be handled,” he said. “But it’s an emotional issue to people that don’t live in the west.”

Not all western lawmakers like the bill.

“Last year, the California (Department of) Fish and Wildlife was so excited to finally announce that we had a family of gray wolves that was found,” said Rep. Norma Torres, D-California. “But that’s three pups and one adult female and one adult male. I hardly think that that is an acceptable level that we would remove all protections from them.”

If the bill passes, Washington state law would still protect wolf habitat from human interference — except in the many acres of federal land in Washington, which includes several national forests and parks, said Shawn Cantrell, a vice president with Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation organization.

Currently, Cantrell said, the U.S. Forest Service protects wolf dens and habitat against timber harvesting, grazing and other human activity. If wolves are removed from the list of endangered species, “those obligations and protections for wolves would go away,” he said.

“Wolves have made an amazing recovery in many areas, but they are still very much in the beginning stages of recovery in a number of places,” Cantrell said. He criticized the lack of a “good management strategy or plan that ensures that wolves will be able to sustain without going back to being an endangered species.”

But livestock industry associations, representing ranchers who have to deal with wolves scaring and attacking their cattle, argued in a letter to House leadership that the U.S. wolf population has recovered and would have already been removed from the endangered species list, if not for “activist litigants” who “used the judicial system to circumvent sound science and restore full ESA protections to these predators.

“To avoid the suppression of science through the court system, (the bill) should also be exempted from judicial review,” the livestock groups wrote.

Another lawsuit threatens to stymie those hoping protections on wolves are removed.

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which, independent of the House bill, is currently reviewing the status of gray wolves nationwide. The department could recommend the removal of wolves from the endangered species list, which it called for the last time it reviewed the species’ status in 2013.

The lawsuit alleges Fish and Wildlife violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to provide a nationwide recovery plan for the wolves.

“Wolves are still missing from more than 90 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states, and the Endangered Species Act and common sense tell us we can’t ignore that loss,” said Collette Adkins, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re doing all we can to make sure Trump officials fulfill their obligation to restore wolves in key habitats across the country.”

Kellen Browning is the D.C. correspondent for McClatchy’s newspapers in Washington and Idaho: The News Tribune, Tri-City Herald, Olympian, Bellingham Herald and Statesman. Before making his way to D.C., Kellen spent last summer chasing wildfires and covering local government for The Sacramento Bee.