HELENA — As the Legislature moves into the second half of the session, the gray wolf is proving to be one creature with few friends in the Capitol.
Lawmakers are advancing a slate of bills that call for decreasing protections for the gray wolf, while Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer encouraged ranchers and state agents last month to kill wolves in defiance of the federal Endangered Species Act.
This year's bills against wolf protection underscore a long-time Montana frustration with the animals.
Many feel wolves have bounced back
The majority of the Legislature as well as the livestock and wool industry say the wolves have recovered beyond expectations and prey on lucrative livestock and fragile elk populations. Some conservationists and biologists on the other hand, say the animals still need protection to survive and could be driven toward extermination if state officials have their way.
Suggestive of the general animosity towards wolves inside the Montana Capitol, a resolution urging their removal from the federal endangered species list passed the House with 99 of 100 votes. One of the most aggressive measures against wolves calls for Montana to reject federal authority over the species and start curbing the population regardless of their endangered status
Wolves nearly became extinct in 1930s
Whether the wolf population has recovered enough since the animals were almost completely killed off across the West in the 1930s is an issue that is causing a stir beyond Montana. Several pieces of federal legislation to remove wolves from the endangered species list are also before Congress, and lawmakers from the Northern Rockies are pushing for quick passage.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protections for wolves across the Northern Rockies including Montana in 2009, paving the way for the state's first wolf hunt in years. But protections were restored by a federal court ruling the next year.
At start of 2010, there were 524 wolves in Montana
At the beginning of last year Montana was estimated to have a minimum of 524 wolves.
Other wolf bills moving in the Legislature range from management plans for after the wolf is delisted, to attempts to limit protected wolf numbers.
Rep. Mike Cuffe has optimistically proposed to use potential wolf hunting license money for a state wolf management account, preparing for the day when wolves are no longer protected by law and federal funding for their management stops. The proposal cleared the House last month.
"I think there's a very real possibility that the wolf may be delisted sooner rather than later," said the Eureka Republican. "There's tremendous frustration (with wolves) all across Montana, I think, high, wide and deep," he said.
States' rights advocates and federal nullifiers also have tapped into the anti-wolf mood in the legislature.
A bill to remove Montana wolves from federal authority by creating an interstate compact to let states determine their own management policies has been endorsed by the House.
Schweitzer is no fan of wolves
Gov. Schweitzer has been equally unfriendly toward the wolves. He announced last month that state wildlife agents would shoot packs of the animals that hurt elk herds, and encouraged ranchers to kill wolves around livestock even in parts of the state where that is prohibited under federal law.
Schweitzer told The Associated Press he wouldn't wait for resolution of federal lawsuits over wolves, which has kept the animals on the endangered species list for about a decade since recovery goals were first met.
"We will take action in Montana on our own," he said. "We've had it with Washington, D.C., with Congress just yipping about it, with (the Department of) Interior just vacillating about it."
The governor's office quickly recanted his strong wolf-killing sanction but GOP lawmakers seized on his statements as an endorsement of Republican-backed federal nullification measures.
Gov. now says wolves will be killed within fed law
The governor now says the state will kill the animals within the boundaries of the federal law.
Although they have few allies in the Capitol, wolves have their supporters among some conservationists who have been successful in keeping the gray wolves protected throughout the lower 48 states.
Many aren't happy with the latest bills likely to come out of the Legislature.
"For someone who believes that wolves have a place in the natural landscape in our region, to see this much open hostility towards wolves is deeply discouraging," said Doug Honnold, an attorney at the environmental law firm Earthjustice.
Honnold and other wolf advocates say the original wolf recovery target of 100 animals statewide was far too small and the animals still need protection.
Honnold also said much of the information being used to target wolves is misleading or false, like the claim wolves negatively impact elk populations.
Wildlife biologists say that while elk herds in some areas have suffered due to wolves, elk populations across the Northern Rockies remain generally healthy.
"I think wolves have been used as a whipping horse for a lot of inflamed passions around issues and that's unfortunate," Honnold said.