The U.S. House of Representatives voted 196-180 on Friday to drop legal protections for gray wolves across the lower 48. The legislation will next head to the Senate.
Nine Democrats joined Republicans in voting to advance the legislation, which was originally co-sponsored by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. Twelve members of the GOP voted against the bill.
Dozens of lawmakers didn’t cast a vote in what has now become a lame-duck session of Congress. Those included Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, who will not return to Capitol Hill next year, and Western Washington Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
“I don’t think that the sponsors of today’s bill can claim a mandate,” said Robert Dewey, vice president for government relations for Defenders of Wildlife, “given the relatively anemic passage of the bill.”
McMorris Rodgers praised the passage, saying it would give Eastern Washington ranchers and farmers more control.
“I believe we can do a better job with local collaboration – with the ranchers, the environmental community and other stakeholders to decide what the best path forward is,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview after Friday’s vote. “Right now farmers and ranchers are being impacted by large wolf packs in our region and they have very limited responses available to them.”
Wolves are not federally listed as an endangered species in the eastern third of Washington, although they are federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state. The majority of Washington’s 120 or so wolves live in the eastern third of the state.
In an interview Thursday, Jay Shepherd, the wolf program lead for Conservation Northwest, said federal delisting would have little impact on Eastern Washington’s wolf management.
In May, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife supported the House bill in a letter to Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., one of the bill’s co-sponsors. In the letter the department said it can’t “fully implement our plan in the western two-thirds of the state.”
Wolves are not federally protected in Idaho. The Rocky Mountain wolf population was first delisted in 2008, although environmental groups challenged the decision in court. That delisting was upheld by a judge in 2011 when a congressional rider attached to an appropriations bill removed the animals from the Endangered Species Act.
State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said although the bill wouldn’t directly affect Eastern Washington, he hopes that it would push WDFW to change how it manages wolves.
“On a statewide basis it just makes it harder for WDFW to keep their listing,” he said. “At some point you have to accept reality and understand that this is an interconnected population.”
He added, “I’m just hopeful that the state will step it up and do a good job managing. I’m not real optimistic but I’m hopeful.”
Environmentalists and ranchers have been frustrated with WDFW’s management, claiming either that the department is too quick to kill wolves or not quick enough.
About 5,000 wolves live in the lower 48 states, occupying less than 10 percent of their historic range.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the wolves’ status and is expected to declare sufficient recovery to be removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency is completing a review of the wolves’ status in the lower 48 states and expects to make a recommendation in the coming months. The agency did not take a position on the House bill.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., said farmers in Wisconsin and other states are “one step closer to having the legal means to defend their livestock from gray wolves.”
States should be responsible for managing wolf populations, “not Washington bureaucrats,” Duffy told the Associated Press.
In a July interview with the Revelator – a news site published by the Center For Biological Diversity – former government trapper and wolf recovery expert Carter Niemeyer said wolf recovery can continue with or without federal protection now that there is a sustainable wolf population.
“I think a lot people mistake an ESA listing as a permanent state of affairs, but it was never meant to function that way,” he said in the interview. “Other regions that fall outside of ESA recovery areas, like Colorado, still need more time for wolf numbers to increase, and I think they will. Wolves are prolific and resilient and I believe they will ultimately succeed in most areas where basic habitat needs, open space and abundant prey are all available — and all of this can happen even without ESA protection.”
Niemeyer could not be reached for comment.
The fate of the bill now rests with the Senate. A spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers said the Senate has introduced similar bills like S. 164 but nothing “as broad” as the House bill.
Dewey doubts the bill will pass the Senate. Instead he said an Interior Department appropriations bill contains similar language. That bill also contains a rider that would prevent “unnecessary listing of greater sage-grouse.”
“That’s the one that’s more in play,” he said. “It’s part of the end-of-the-year spending bill.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.