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Originally published Friday, February 4, 2011 at 4:56 PM

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Lawmakers challenging gray wolf protection

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.

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Some members of Congress say there are 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, 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 state Republican Rep. Doc Hastings. He isn't a co-sponsor of the legislation, but he backs the idea.

"If they're not endangered anymore, then shouldn't some action be taken?" Hastings asked. 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 preparing for their first big fight of the year.

Those who want to protect the wolves say they're important because they're the top predators in the food chain. They kill and eat large animals, including elk, buffalo, moose and deer, helping to keep their populations under control.

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 Montana Republican Denny Rehberg, who says management of gray wolves should be left to the states. He introduced his bill last week. It has 15 co-sponsors.

"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." Introduced Tuesday, the measure has seven Republican co-sponsors: Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, John Barrasso and Michael Enzi of Wyoming, and Mike Lee of Utah.

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"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."

Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, hasn't signed on to the legislation, but he wants the Interior Department to allow the hunting of gray wolves in his state as a way to protect elk and livestock.

Schlickeisen said most Americans "care very deeply about our nation's wildlife and want to see all animals protected from needless persecution."

"These bills would sacrifice wildlife belonging to all Americans just because a small minority of people don't like wolves," he said.

According to Defenders of Wildlife, there are roughly 7,000 to 11,200 gray wolves in Alaska and more than 5,000 in the Lower 48 states. There are an estimated 200,000 wolves in 57 countries, compared with a onetime high of 2 million.

The wolves once roamed throughout North America but were killed off in most parts of the United States by the mid-1930s. The wolves mainly are found in Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming. At least two cases of reproducing wolf packs have been documented in Washington state since 2008.

Yellowstone National Park is one of the best places to see them in their natural habitat.

Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.

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