By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Idaho Governor Butch Otter signed a bill on Tuesday declaring the gray wolf a "disaster emergency" in his state, days after Congress voted to strip the animal of federal protections there and in Montana.
Despite enactment of federal legislation turning wolf control over to state wildlife management and allowing licensed hunting of the animals, Otter welcomed his new authority to bring law enforcement to bear against any wolf threats to humans or livestock.
The gray wolf of the Northern Rockies is about to become the first creature ever taken off the U.S. endangered species list by act of Congress, rather than by scientific review, under a measure inserted into a sweeping budget bill.
The Idaho bill declaring the presence of the gray wolf a disaster emergency was passed by the Republican-controlled state Legislature earlier this month, before de-listing gained final congressional approval in the U.S. Senate last week. De-listing takes effect within 60 days.
Otter had expressed reservations last week about whether the wolf disaster bill was necessary given the action Congress was taking.
But in signing the disaster bill on Tuesday, the Republican governor said the additional authority granted him would come in handy if state control over wolves were revoked or if wolves were relisted as endangered.
The estimated 700-plus wolves in Idaho account for nearly half of the wolf population in the region. But state management plans sanctioned by Congress would allow wolf numbers there and in Montana to fall to 150 in each.
Wolves have been at the center of a bitter debate in the two states since they were reintroduced to the region -- under federal protections -- in the mid-1990s.
Ranchers, sportsmen and state game wardens have said wolf packs pose a growing threat to livestock and big-game animals such as elk. Conservation groups have argued that public hunting and other wolf-control measures planned by the states could drive the animals back to the brink of extinction.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)