WOLVES:

Western lawmakers renew push for state-managed hunts

Western lawmakers have renewed efforts to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf, reigniting a debate over whether the iconic species has fully recovered in the region.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) in a letter yesterday to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requested that the agency approve his state's proposal to hold a "conservation hunt" in order to reduce the number of wolves preying on other big-game species including elk, deer and moose, as well as livestock.

"A regulated hunt of wolves is well within the scope of the Endangered Species Act, and will enhance the management of wolves in the state and throughout the region," Tester said in his letter. "It will reduce actual and perceived pressure from this species on Montana's ecosystem and agricultural economy, while honoring our state's hunting heritage."

Tester added that his state in 2009 successfully managed the first wolf hunting season in decades -- a plan that was halted last August when a federal judge ruled that federal protections could not be removed only in Montana and Idaho, because its habitat also includes Wyoming.

In September 2010, Montana asked Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service to authorize a statewide conservation hunt of 186 wolves to reduce a population it said had far surpassed the agency's original recovery goals. FWS Deputy Director Daniel Ashe -- who was recently appointed to become the agency's new director -- denied the request less than a month later, saying FWS supported sport hunting of wolves but feared a legal challenge if it approved the hunt.

Tester asked Salazar to re-evaluate his agency's dismissal of the request and work swiftly to implement a conservation hunt in Montana.

Also yesterday, Montana's lone representative, Denny Rehberg (R), introduced two bills to restore wolf management to states.

"The gray wolf isn't endangered, which is why Republicans and Democrats alike are joining forces to end the misuse of the Endangered Species Act to advance extremist policy agendas," Rehberg, a rancher from Billings, said in a statement.

The first bill is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Mike Simpson and Raúl Labrador of Idaho and would permanently remove wolves from federal protection and return wolf management authority to Montana and Idaho.

The second bill -- which is co-sponsored by five Democrats and 10 Republicans -- says the ESA shall not apply to gray wolves anywhere in the country.

"Increasing numbers of wolves in Idaho show that protection under the Endangered Species Act is no longer needed," Labrador said in a statement. "The endangered species act is a tool to recover a species, not a program for infinite and never-ending federal oversight."

Environmental groups that sued to restore federal protections to wolves have said that scientists call for a minimum of 2,000 animals in the tri-state area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in order to ensure genetic diversity among the region's packs. Currently, there are roughly 1,700 wolves in the northern Rockies.

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