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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.

“Jon’s opponent couldn’t even get his bill included in H.R. 1, so there’s no chance it would pass Congress. Montanans don’t want politics to keep dragging this down,” Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said. “They just want a real solution that removes wolves from the endangered species list and returns their management to our state — and that’s exactly what this provision does. Jon’s known for finding bipartisan solutions and getting them passed. His opponent is known for doing whatever his party bosses tell him to do, even when it’s wrong for Montana.”

Rehberg has been aggressively courting the support of various state and national interest groups, some of which have substantial political clout. The list of those backing the Congressman’s bill includes the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, the National Trappers Association and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, among others.

“The overall conclusion is that we support delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act,” Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation spokesman Lance Lemmonds said. “Any legislation that gets us going in that direction we support.”

That means, of course, that the foundation actually supports Rehberg’s bill in addition to the Tester provision.

Many groups, however, favor only one or the other. That’s the case with the Montana Wildlife Federation.

The organization’s 7,500 members are primarily hunters and anglers. And they prefer the Tester approach.

“The Tester and Simpson effort is more in line with our biological philosophy,” Aldrich said, noting that the provision would continue to allow federal wildlife officials to have a role in protecting the animals. The Tester approach, he noted, is also more politically viable, as evidenced by its inclusion last week in both the House Republican and Senate Democratic spending bills.

Aldrich reports that the gray wolf population has largely recovered in recent years.

Wolf packs were eliminated from Montana by the 1930s, according to state data. But backed by a recovery plan instituted in the 1980s, they began to trickle in from Canada in the 1990s. By the end of 1994, there were roughly 48 wolves living in and around Montana’s Glacier National Park.

At the beginning of 2010, the most recent data available, state officials reported 524 wolves were living in Montana, including 37 breeding pairs.

The growth has produced problems for hunters and farmers, according to Aldrich.

Hundreds of cattle, sheep, horses and other livestock have been killed by wolves in recent years. And the effect on the elk population, a favorite target of local hunters, is believed to be severe as well, although the state has trouble tallying the number of confirmed kills.

The struggle over both spending bills, which stalled in the Senate last week, suggests that the issue won’t be resolved soon.

“We’re a year and a half away from an election, from where Tester and Rehberg will be looking for the same job,” Aldrich said. “I hesitate to say it’s a top issue, but I certainly think it could be. The longer we wait, the more difficult it could get to separate it from political discussion.”

It’s already part of the political discussion for some.

“Everybody agrees that wolves should be hunted now. The question is who gets to decide — [President] Barack Obama or [Montana Gov.] Brian Schweitzer,” said Iverson, Rehberg’s consultant. “It’s a livelihood issue out here for folks. They make their living off the land, and wolves are literally destroying their livelihood.”

Rehberg’s decision to challenge Tester made the contest one of the most competitive in the nation as the Republicans attempt to win back Senate control. Roll Call Politics rates the race a Tossup.

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