By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The gray wolf will become the first creature ever taken off the U.S. endangered species list by an act of Congress, rather than by scientific review, under legislation sent to the White House on Thursday.
The measure, attached to a budget deal given final congressional passage by the Senate, would lift federal safeguards for more than 1,200 wolves in Montana and Idaho, placing them under state control and allowing licensed hunting of the animals.
It also bars judicial review of the de-listing. The measure, which essentially restores a 2009 U.S. Fish and Wildlife decision struck down in court last August, would take effect within 60 days of being signed into law.
It was not immediately clear how many wolves would be subject to licensed hunting. But state management plans now sanctioned by Congress would allow wolf numbers in Montana and Idaho to fall to 150 each, said Gary Power, a member of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.
"In all likelihood, I doubt it would go that low," he told Reuters in speaking of the wolf population in Idaho. That state has an estimated 700 wolves. Montana has over 550.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill, which contains funding to keep the entire federal government operating through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
The de-listing 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.
"This provision is the responsible thing to do to address a very specific problem," U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and a chief sponsor of the measure, told reporters shortly before the budget bill passed on a vote of 81-19.
De-listing the wolf through legislation was generally opposed by environmentalists, who say it takes the process of determining the health of a species out of the hands of biologists and puts it in the hands of politicians.
The wolf is the first animal to be de-listed through legislation, as opposed to a process of scientific review established under the Endangered Species Act.
"This rider is not sound science, it's political interference," said Sierra Club wildlife expert Matt Kirby.
The Obama administration had sought to quell the dispute by urging wildlife advocates to accept management plans of Montana and Idaho as adequate to keep wolf numbers healthy -- without federal protections -- now that they exceed recovery targets.
A number of conservation groups reluctantly embraced that approach, in part to avert congressional action they saw as setting a bad precedent.
But a federal judge in Montana blocked the plan as recently as last Saturday. An earlier version put in place by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2009 was thrown out last August.
In both instances, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that de-listing violated the Endangered Species Act because it treated wolves in Montana and Idaho separately from those in Wyoming. Because scientists consider all wolves in the Northern Rockies to be part of a single population, they cannot be listed or de-listed on a state-by-state basis, Molloy said.
Wyoming was left out of the de-listing because that state would have let most of its 300-plus wolves be shot on sight.
Under the bill passed Thursday, Wyoming's wolves will remain federally protected for the time being. But the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to consider a revised management plan Wyoming is expected to present soon.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)