By JOHN FLESHER | AP Environmental Writer
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Gray wolves in Wyoming and three Great Lakes states would lose court-ordered protection under legislation proposed in Congress, the latest offensive in a 12-year battle over whether the predator species is secure enough to allow hunting and trapping or should retain its federal shield.
Two bills introduced this week would nullify a federal judge's decision in December to return wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to the endangered species list. One also would extend the policy to Wyoming, where another judge in September restored protections for wolves that the Obama administration had lifted.
With the measures, lawmakers are seeking to intervene a second time in the issue of wolf protection, drawing accusations from environmental groups of meddling with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's authority to determine which animals should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Congress in 2011 took the unprecedented step of removing wolves in Idaho, Montana and sections of Utah, Washington and Oregon from the list.
Such moves “will surely open the floodgates to endless proposals to delist additional species based upon politics and not science, undermining the integrity of the act and our ability to conserve the nation's most imperiled wildlife,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said Thursday.
Supporters of the bills said it was appropriate for Congress to help farmers, ranchers and pet owners who have paid the price for the wolf's recovery following its near-extinction in the lower 48 states during the last century.
“The stories we've been hearing over and over from our farmers and ranchers are tragic,” said Amber Hanson, associate director of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation. A member this week reported a fatal attack on a calf two hours after it was born, Hanson said, adding, “When your only option is to scream at a wolf, it doesn't do a whole lot of good.”
A bill introduced by Rep. John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, would prohibit placing Great Lakes wolves on the list of endangered and threatened species and put the states in charge of managing their populations. Rep. Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin Republican, offered a separate measure that would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to re-issue previous rulings that dropped wolves in the three Great Lakes states and Wyoming from the list.
Rep. Dan Benishek, a Michigan Republican who co-sponsored Ribble's bill, said it would “empower state governments to be responsible stewards of the wolf population in order to balance the protection of the species with the needs of local communities.”
The federal government has tried four times since 2003 to lift protections for Great Lakes wolves, only to be stymied by lawsuits. In her December ruling, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell sided with groups contending the states' regulatory plans _ which include hunting and, in Minnesota and Wisconsin, trapping _ don't provide enough protection. She noted the wolves haven't come close to repopulating their historic range.
A coalition of environmental groups last month proposed reclassifying all wolves in the lower 48 states as “threatened,” which would give wildlife managers more flexibility to deal with problem animals than allowed under the “endangered” status that now applies to wolves in most of the nation.
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