Wolf delisting brings new twist to federal sportsmen’s bill

Some predict, however, that could be bill’s death knell

Washington — Having been denied access to a far-reaching federal appropriations bill, members of Congress seeking to delist wolves in the Midwest and Wyoming apparently have found another vehicle upon which to hitch their wolf-related legislation.

Groups like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership last month – at least initially – heralded passage of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act by a Senate committee as a victory for wildlife habitat and hunter access. Shortly thereafter, another group, Minnesota’s Howling for Wolves, condemned an amendment that was added to the multi-faceted bill. That amendment would return wolf management to the states of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The bill, which has floated around Congress for the past half decade, includes provisions to reauthorize the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Act. It also would expand target ranges on public land, and address migratory game bird baiting.

Officials say Senate bill 659, passed by the Environment and Public Works Committee, will coalesce with another sportsmen’s bill passed last November, S. 556, by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That bill includes items ranging from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to access to federal land and waterways by film crews. 

“Today’s vote (Jan. 20) was an important step toward improving habitat and access, which translates to more opportunities for sportsmen across the country to live out our unique outdoor heritage,” Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of TRCP, said in a press statement. “We’re very pleased to see that conservation has support in the Senate at a critical time for our nation’s land, water, and fish and wildlife resources.”

While conservation groups say the bill has several items beneficial to hunters and fishers in the state, it was an amendment to the bill that turned the most heads.

Late last year, Congress passed a trillion-dollar spending bill, and in the process rejected a number of proposed riders – some more divisive than others – that might’ve derailed that legislation. Included on the reject list was a rider that would’ve delisted wolves in the Midwest and Wyoming, and restricted the judiciary in matters relating to wolves in those places.

That legislation resurfaced last month as an amendment to the sportsmen’s bill. It was offered by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, and effectively would delist wolves in the Great Lakes states, and Wyoming. The species was relisted under the Endangered Species Act over a year ago, ending state management that included hunting in Michigan, and bringing to a close the latest period of state management of the species.

Barrasso offered these statements following passage of the bill, complete with his amendment:

“My amendment would delist the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lakes under the Endangered Species Act. It also protects that delisting from further judicial review similar to the judicial protections granted by Congress to Montana and Idaho,” he said.

“The time to move forward, recognize the science, and focus our scarce taxpayer resources on truly imperiled species is now.”

According to Barrasso’s office, the amendment specifically directs the secretary of the Interior to reissue final rules related to the listing of the gray wolf in Wyoming, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Groups like TRCP long have supported the provisions of the sportsmen’s bill. But few believe the wolf-delisting amendment is a good thing for its long-term health.

“In the context of this bill, I don’t think it’s a great addition,” Steve Kline, TRCP’s director of government relations, said of the Barrasso amendment.

Kline said the organization supports state management of a species that’s met agreed-upon delisting criteria in the states in question. “But we have generally opposed, though, Congressional meddling at the species level,” he said.

Further, he said, the amendment could set up the bill, which has failed multiple times to pass in Congress, to fail again.

During its six-year history, Kline said, the bill has “attracted problems” of various types; the last time it was gun-control measures.

That was 2014, when Senate Democrats first offered a “slew of gun amendments,” Kline said. A volley then came from the Republican side of the aisle.

“It started to take on water from both sides,” he said of the sportsmen’s bill. With the wolf amendment, along with another contentious amendment regarding pesticide permitting, “We’re veering toward a troublesome exit,” he added.

That’s not to mention that it’s a presidential election year, Congress will be in recess much of the summer, and “floor time” will be at a premium, he said.

There’s also the matter of a House version of the sportsmen’s bill that fails to resemble the Senate version in many ways regarding conservation. And, President Obama already has threatened a veto of that House version absent changes, Kline said. 

“It’s a big challenge,” he said.

John Gale, policy director for the group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said his organization supports the Senate bill, along with its amendments, “But we would’ve preferred it more without the addition of potentially divisive elements,” he said. The original bill, Gale called “a pretty great base package.”

In a press release, Collin O’Mara, of the National Wildlife Federation, said there are several “important conservation measures” in the bill passed by the Senate committee. But, he added in a NWF press release, “… the committee missed an opportunity to bolster the chances that this important legislation finally passes this year by allowing a few controversial amendments that reduced bipartisan support in the committee.”

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