By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The gray wolf would become the first creature ever removed from the U.S. endangered species list by an act of Congress under a provision in the budget deal set to be passed by lawmakers this week.
The measure would lift federal safeguards for some 1,200 wolves in the western states of Montana and Idaho, placing them back under state control and allowing licensed hunting of the animals. It also would bar judicial review of the decision to rescind federal protections.
The provision is included in massive, must-pass legislation to keep the federal government operating through the end of the fiscal year on September 30. It is expected to be passed in Washington by the Congress by the end of the week.
The move is being hailed by ranchers who see the growing wolf population in the Northern Rockies as a threat to their herds. Cattle producers, hunters and state game wardens say wolf packs in some places are preying unchecked on livestock and other animals such as elk.
"Congress has never before made a species-specific decision," said Matt Kirby, a wildlife expert for the Sierra Club conservation group. "It opens up a Pandora's box where you could have politicians cherry-picking inconvenient species."
But U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who sponsored the provision, said, "Right now, Montana's wolf population is out of balance, and this provision will get us back on the responsible path with statement management."
A similar plan implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 was struck down last August by federal judge Donald Molloy in Montana, who ruled it violated the Endangered Species Act.
The Obama administration has sought to quell the dispute by persuading wildlife advocates to embrace the management plans of Montana and Idaho as adequate to keep wolf populations at healthy levels now that they exceed recovery targets.
On Saturday, Molloy rejected the plan again after it was presented as a negotiated settlement between the federal government and 10 conservation groups. Several environmental organizations continue to oppose it.
Once abundant across most of North America, gray wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in much of the continental United States by the 1930s under a government-sponsored eradication program.
Decades later, biologists recognized that wolves had an essential role to play in mountain ecosystems as a predator. Listed as endangered in 1974, the animals have made a comeback in the region around Yellowstone National Park since the government reintroduced them there in the mid-1990s.
The language now before Congress would override Molloy and put the 2009 plan back into place.
A number of animals have been removed from the U.S. endangered species list over the years through a process of scientific review established under federal law. But this legislation would mark the first time an animal has been removed by Congress from the endangered list.
(Additional reporting by Wendell Marsh; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton and Will Dunham)