By Laura Zuckerman and Wendell Marsh
SALMON, Idaho/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tucked into a sprawling budget deal nearing passage on Capitol Hill is a proposal that would make the gray wolf the first creature ever removed from the Endangered Species List by an act of Congress.
The "rider" in must-pass legislation to keep the government funded through September would lift federal safeguards for some 1,200 wolves in Montana and Idaho, placing them back under state control and allowing licensed hunting of the animals.
The measure, which also bars judicial review of the de-listing, has divided environmental groups but was hailed by ranchers who see the growing wolf population in the Northern Rockies as a threat to their herds.
"Right now, Montana's wolf population is out of balance, and this provision will get us back on the responsible path with statement management," said Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and a chief sponsor of the rider.
A similar plan was put into effect by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 but struck down last August by a federal judge in Montana who ruled it violated the Endangered Species Act.
The decision sparked a furor among cattle producers, sportsmen and state game wardens who say wolf packs in some areas are preying unchecked on livestock and other animals, such as elk.
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, the same judge, Donald 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.
COMEBACK IN THE ROCKIES
Once abundant across most of North America, gray wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in much of the Lower 48 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 an apex 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 rider, headed for passage as part of the stop-gap spending bill by week's end, would override Judge Molloy to put the 2009 de-listing plan back into place.
A number of creatures have been de-listed over the years through a process of scientific review established under the 1973 act. But the wolf rider would mark the first time that an animal has been removed from the endangered list by Congress.
"Congress has never before made a species-specific decision," said Matt Kirby, a wildlife expert for the Sierra Club. "It opens up a Pandora's box where you could have politicians cherry-picking inconvenient species."
Besides wolves in Montana and Idaho, which account for the bulk of the species in the Rockies, the rider would de-list much smaller wolf populations in Washington state, Oregon and Utah, numbering roughly three dozen in all.
An estimated 300-plus additional wolves in Wyoming would remain federally protected for the time being. But the bill requires the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider a revised plan Wyoming is expected to present soon for assuming control of wolves there, too.
Wyoming's wolves were left out of the government's 2009 de-listing because that state originally would have allowed its wolves to be shot on sight.
House passage of the spending bill, which also would cut Environmental Protection Agency funding by 16 percent, is expected Thursday, with Senate action likely to follow Thursday night or Friday.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)