WASHINGTON -- Some members of Congress say there are just too many gray wolves in the United States.
In the first effort to change the Endangered Species Act in the new Congress, bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to remove the gray wolf from the list of protected animals. Proponents say the national wolf population, now estimated at 12,000 to 16,000, has recovered sufficiently.
In the House, the bill has been referred to the Natural Resources Committee, headed by Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. Although he's not a co-sponsor of the legislation, Hastings is backing the idea.
"If they're not endangered anymore, then shouldn't some action be taken?" Hastings said. And if an abundance of wolves is posing a threat to cattle, he said, "then there needs to be a way to deal with that."
In the Senate, the bill is headed to the Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. She opposes the legislation, saying the bill "undermines the Endangered Species Act and threatens the continued existence of the gray wolf across this country."
Environmental groups are getting ready for their first big fight of the year.
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said the bills would set "a terrible precedent that will open the floodgates to legislation to strip protections for any other species that a politician finds inconvenient to protect."
"Grizzly bears, salmon, whales, polar bears and Florida panthers are just a few that could be at serious risk," he said.
In the House, the bill's chief sponsor is Republican Denny Rehberg of Montana, who said management of gray wolves should be left to the states. He introduced his bill last week with 15 co-sponsors, including Republican Reps. Don Young of Alaska, Raul Labrador and Michael Simpson of Idaho, and Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California.
"I heard from thousands of Montanans, and folks get it," said Rehberg, a rancher from Billings. "They know that states are better at managing our own local wildlife than the federal government thousands of miles away. Unless there's a darn good reason -- and there's not -- the federal government has no business getting involved."
In the Senate, the bill's chief sponsor is Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who called his legislation "The American Big Game and Livestock Protection Act." It was introduced Tuesday with seven Republican co-sponsors: Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho, John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Barasso and Michael Enzi of Wyoming, and Mike Lee of Utah.
"Gray wolves are no longer endangered," Hatch said. "Their numbers have rebounded to the point that they are now posing a significant threat to wildlife and livestock in Utah and other Western states."
Wolves once roamed throughout all of North America but were killed in most parts of the U.S. by the mid-1930s. Today, wolves are found mainly in Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming, but also are known to be living in Washington and Oregon.