For years, wolves have been one of the most polarizing issues in the American West. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, gray wolves were virtually extinct in the lower 48 states. After 37 years of protection under the law, however, about 1,650 wolves now roam the Northern Rockies -- more than five times the initial recovery goal of 300. Ranchers and hunters, whose livestock and big-game prey wolves are prone to devouring, have long called for an end to the animals' protected status. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to lessen protections and shift wolf policy to the states, however, conservation groups filed suit.
In April, Congress skirted the courts and granted ranchers and hunters their wish. By delisting the species in the Northern Rockies, the wolf rider allowed Montana and Idaho -- Wyoming was not included in the rider -- to pursue their own policies. The legislation, championed by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), marked the first time Congress has removed protections for an endangered species.
"To me it just set an absolutely horrendous precedent,"
said Eric Glitzenstein, founding partner of Meyer Glitzenstein &
Crystal, which often represents conservation groups.
This new precedent may inspire legislators to attempt to circumvent protections for species holding up development in their districts. Several measures already have environmentalists alarmed.
Republican Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and James Inhofe (Okla.) have proposed amendments to an economic-development reauthorization bill that would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from extending ESA protections to two species prevalent in oil and gas country.
Now that Congress has gone ahead and taken a species off the list, said Patrick Parenteau, an ESA expert at Vermont Law School, savvy legislators are saying, "'Well heck, let's cut to the quick and prevent the species from being listed at all.'"
In the House, California Republicans are pushing a bill that would unravel protections for the Delta smelt, an endangered fish at the heart of California's bitter water politics, in order to funnel more water to farmers in the state's San Joaquin Valley. The bill would override a bipartisan agreement passed by state legislators in 2009 that balanced environmental and agricultural interests. Merely the latest GOP effort to supersede protections for the smelt and other fish species, this bill will likely pass the House but may well falter once it hits the Senate, opposed as it is by California's Democratic senators and by the White House.
In much of the West, political lines on conservation are not so black-and-white. Strong traditions of wilderness conservation run through both parties, ranching and hunting interests are all-powerful, and states' rights are a religion.