Lawmakers in the West said Friday they will keep pushing to lift federal protections for gray wolves despite a proposed settlement between environmental groups and the Obama administration.
The settlement would end a decade of lawsuits over the animals. But it faces significant legal hurdles that leave uncertain whether court approval will come before lawmakers act.
Approval is being sought from a judge who has twice ruled against attempts to lift wolf protections. Also, the deal faces opposition from some wildlife advocates who say their prior court victories are being squandered in a political compromise.
Given the uncertainties, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, of Montana, told The Associated Press he won't wait to push through his legislation taking wolves off the endangered list in Montana and Idaho.
An identical measure already was approved by the U.S. House, through a provision tucked into the pending budget bill.
"That's ultimately the best solution," said Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, who authored the House provision. "I do think the language that we put in the bill will pass both the House and the Senate, and we're going to continue to keep it in (the budget bill.)"
The settlement agreement would lift protections at least temporarily for about 1,250 wolves and allow hunting in Idaho and Montana. But protections would be retained _ for now _ for almost 400 wolves in Wyoming and portions of Utah, Washington and Oregon.
Environmentalists backing the deal say it could allow wolf populations to expand sharply in Oregon and Washington _ an outcome Simpson said he hopes to avert. The deal also calls for a scientific review in several years that could put the species back on the endangered list if too many wolves are killed by hunting.
Gray wolves once roamed most of the country but were largely exterminated from the lower 48 states by the early 1930s. A reintroduction program trapped some in Canada and released them in the U.S.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Montana has twice rejected attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to declare wolves recovered in the Northern Rockies.
The proposed settlement was filed with Molloy on March 18. He held a hearing last week, but made no decision.
"I don't know when Judge Molloy is going to decide which way to go, whether to accept the settlement or not," Sen. Tester told the AP. He added that he was "looking for any opportunity" to pass a provision that would force the Department of Interior to lift protections.
Tester's proposal, like Simpson's, would shield that action from court review.
Political pressure to reduce wolf numbers in Montana and other states has been mounting in recent years as wolf attacks on livestock gradually increased and some big-game herds suffered declines.
For Tester, the pressure to get something done is amplified by a 2012 re-election bid in which he already faces stiff opposition from the state's sole House member, Republican Denny Rehberg.
Rehberg is backing even more sweeping legislation to lift wolf protections. That measure, however, is considered less likely to pass because it also would apply to a struggling wolf population in the Southwest and wolves in Wyoming, where state law would allow the animals to be shot on sight across most of the state.
Ten environmental groups signed onto the settlement with the administration last month.
Some of the groups said they did so reluctantly, on the premise Congress would back down from bills considered dangerous precedents for undercutting the Endangered Species Act.
"We continue to think the settlement is the best step in a political strategy to head off disastrous congressional action," said Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity. "That's why we went into this settlement. Otherwise there wouldn't be much point."
Suckling added that his group still does not consider wolves adequately recovered. But he said the settlement at least gives the population time to grow in places like Oregon and Washington, where packs have started moving over the last several years.
An attorney for one of the groups opposed to the settlement criticized those who signed onto the deal for moving forward without more assurances that Congress would go along.
"From the outset, it was clear that nobody from those Congressional offices had made any promises," said Summer Nelson with the Western Watersheds Project. "This settlement is not going to appease them."
It is unclear whether the Obama administration will take a stand against the bills to give the settlement time to work. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Tester he supported the Montana senator's legislation during a March 9 appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said only that her agency is "hopeful that the court approves the settlement."
The estimated 1,650 wolves now in the Northern Rockies are descended primarily from 66 wolves trapped in Canada and released into remote areas of Idaho and Wyoming in the mid-1990s by the fish and wildlife service.
As wolf attacks on livestock have increased, hundreds of the predators are now shot every year by government wildlife agents to reduce conflicts.
The region's wolf population grew dramatically in the first decade after they were reintroduced but has more recently tapered off. The original federal recovery goal for the animals was a minimum of 300 wolves region-wide _ a number reached more than a decade ago.