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Wolf Fight Draws Howls in Montana

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It doesn’t matter whether any voters live in Kootenai or Lolo — western Montana’s national forests are home to a fierce and breathing debate ­likely to play prominently in the state’s 2012 Senate contest.

The wolves aren’t going away.

As Washington has clashed over how many billions of dollars to cut from the federal budget, some Montanans focused on a provision tucked into the massive spending bills that would have allowed them to begin hunting gray wolves, which have been protected by the federal Endangered Species Act for more than three decades.

While some environmental groups are howling, the consensus among the state’s political elite in both parties supports the immediate hunting of gray wolves, which numbered at least 524 in Montana at the beginning of 2010, according to state data.

Sen. Jon Tester (D) and his likely GOP opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg, favor wolf hunting, but their differing Congressional solutions have fueled political attacks that may intensify in the coming months.

“This isn’t an issue on the front page yet relative to the next election, but the economy related to hunting, fishing and wildlife is worth over $1 billion to us,” said Tim Aldrich, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “There’s a lot of frustration over this wolf issue.”

Rehberg’s proposal would eliminate wolves from the list forever, and not just in the Big Sky State but nationwide. Tester prefers allowing wolves to be hunted in Montana and Idaho, while placing hunting control in the hands of state officials with federal oversight.

Indeed, the politics of wolves could get messy.

“Rehberg has always been on top of the wolf issue. He’s kind of the recognized leader in the delegation,” Rehberg political consultant Erik Iverson told Roll Call. “Tester kind of came late to the game. ... He licked his finger on this wolf issue and saw which way the political winds were blowing.”

But it was Tester, backed by Finance Chairman and home-state colleague Sen. Max Baucus (D), who inserted a provision into the Senate Democrats’ spending bill last week that would have effectively overturned a 2009 court decision that blocked a Montana wolf hunt already in the works. The measure would allow the Interior Department to reissue a rule giving Montana and Idaho the right to manage their own wolf populations.

That’s not good enough for Rehberg.

The six-term Congressman, who has already announced his intention to challenge Tester’s bid for a second term in 2012, has introduced a stand-alone bill that would exempt the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act nationwide. But the measure was not included in the House Republican spending bill, despite support from Representatives of the majority of the country.

The House version instead included language, backed by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), that mirrors Tester’s plan.

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