BILLINGS — The White House is poised to accept a budget bill that includes an unprecedented end-run around Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in five Western states — the first time Congress has targeted a species protected under the 37-year-old law.
Lawmakers describe the provision in the spending bill as a necessary intervention in a wildlife dilemma that some say has spun out of control. Sixty-six wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies from Canada in the mid-1990s; there are now at least 1,650.
But legal experts warn the administration's support of lifting protections for the animals opens the door to future meddling by lawmakers catering to anti-wildlife interests.
The endangered act has long been reviled by conservatives who see it as a hindrance to economic development. Now, the administration's support for the wolf provision signals that protections for even the most imperiled animals, fish and plants are negotiable given enough political pressure, experts said.
Officials in Montana and Idaho already are planning public hunts for the predators this fall, hoping to curb increasingly frequent wolf attacks on livestock and big game herds.
"The president could have used some political capital to influence this and he didn't," said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law from the Vermont Law School. "The message to the environmental community is, don't count on the administration to be there" for the protection of endangered species.
Environmentalists still count Obama as an ally on other issues, ranging from climate change and wilderness preservation to oil and gas exploration. Yet experts in wildlife law say that in the scramble to pass the budget, the administration is circumventing one of the country's bedrock environmental laws.
That's a bitter pill for conservationists, who hoped a Democratic White House would more aggressively protect a law many say was ignored under the Bush administration.
The next potential blow to the law already is looming. A 2012 budget request from the Department of Interior would impose a sharp spending cap on a program that allows citizens to petition for species to be listed as endangered.
Those petitions were used for the majority of the species added to the list over the last four decades.
"We are having the worst attack on the Endangered Species Act in 30 years while we have a Democratic Senate and a Democratic White House," said Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity. "They are trying to shut citizens and scientists out of the endangered species process."
To date, the Obama administration has listed 59 species as endangered — a rate of about 30 a year, according to Suckling's group, which closely tracks endangered species issues.
That's up significantly from the Bush years, when the average was eight per year, but far behind the 65 species per year under the Clinton administration.
Western lawmakers who backed the budget bill rider said the wolf issue was unique and merited special intervention. Federal judges over the last decade had repeatedly blocked attempts to downgrade the legal status of an animal population most biologists agreed was thriving.
Meanwhile, wolf attacks have generated resentment among ranchers and sportsmen. Those groups are increasingly frustrated they have been unable to strike back against the predators.
J.B. Ruhl, an expert in the Endangered Species Act at Florida State University, warned against reading too much into the wolf provision, which was latched onto a must-pass bill needed to avert a government shutdown.
"It seems to me the planets had to be aligned just right to make this happen," Ruhl said. "There might be a wing of the Republican party that would love to see the Endangered Species Act reformed, but I don't think they are going to be able to ram that through anytime soon."
Support within the Obama administration for lifting wolf protections predates the budget negotiations. That stance mirrors the government's actions under the Bush administration, when officials first proposed lifting protections.
The White House referred questions to the office of Interior Sec. Ken Salazar.
Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff refused to directly address the legislation. She said the agency views the Endangered Species Act as a "critical safety net" that has prevented the extinction of hundreds of imperiled species.