WASHINGTON (CN) – The House of Representatives voted 196-180 on Friday to drop legal protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states.
Nine Democrats joined Republicans in voting to advance the legislation, which is now headed to the U.S. Senate. Twelve members of the GOP voted against the bill.
Gray wolves have long been despised by farmers and ranchers, and were nearly driven out of existence before securing federal protection in the 1970s. Since then, their populations have bounced back in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the wolf's status and is expected to declare they've recovered sufficiently to be removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The bill, known as the Manage Our Wolves Act, directs Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke go ahead and remove the gray wolf from endangered species lists in the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia.
The House bill would enshrine that policy in law and restrict judicial review of listing decisions.
Former President Barack Obama initially removed protections for the gray wolf due to what the administration then believed was a significant resurgence of its numbers.
But the decision was reversed in 2014 after a federal court determined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to actually prove the population was in recovery.
The legislation’s sponsors, Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-West Virginia, have argued that protections for the gray wolf are superfluous and that by managing the species – or allowing hunters and landowners to kill the wolves – farmers and other property owners will be able to protect their livestock and property.
While the legislation directs the culling and trapping of the gray wolves to landowners and hunters, it also notes that states will ultimately have the right to decide how they wish to implement protections for the animal.
The National Cattleman’s Beef Association released a statement Friday in support of the bill’s passage.
“Since 2011, the best scientific and commercial data available has supported removing gray wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species,” said association president Kevin Kester.
Bob Skinner, president of the Public Lands Council, a group which advocates for the rights of ranchers, said Friday that if the endangered species listing process was actually effective, the legislation passed Friday would have been moot to begin with.
“We are grateful to see a vote on this legislation but the bill itself speaks to the need to modernize the Endangered Species Act. Activists should not be allowed to abuse technicalities in the judicial system to force a relisting – especially when sound science and hard data clearly illustrate that is time for these wolves to come off the list,” Skinner said.
Nora Apter, legislative associate for environmental advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council, disagreed with this notion however, saying in a statement Friday that the bill was shortsighted.
“In case Congress needs reminding, we are in the middle of a global mass extinction crisis,” Apter said.
The bill imperils wildlife and ignores the reason why some endangered species are still alive today, she continued.
“The Endangered Species Act has been such an incredible success because it relies on science – not politics – in its decision making and ensures citizens the right to enforce the law. [This bill] undermines those key traits an threatens the Endangered Species Act as a whole,” Apter said.
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