April 12, 2011

AMONG THE POLICY riders added to this year’s budget deal was a measure removing the gray wolf in Idaho and Montana from the endangered-species list , ending a years-long battle between environmentalists and ranchers in those states. The measure has bipartisan support, and neither party’s base is going to war over it. Still, there is reason to worry about this one, too.

Defenders of Congress’s move to delist the gray wolf insist that lawmakers aren’t substituting political decisions for scientific ones. The Interior Department tried to do the same thing in 2009 after concluding that Idaho and Montana had adequate state-level management plans for their wolf populations, which had stabilized and were harassing herds of livestock. Environmentalists challenged that determination in court, arguing that Interior couldn’t delist part of the northern Rockies’ gray wolf population and not the rest, which resides in Wyoming and nearby states. A district court judge agreed. The parties tried to settle, but not all the plaintiffs signed on to a proposed settlement, and the judge continued to object.

Congress’s rider short-circuits these judicial proceedings by simply reissuing Interior’s 2009 determination, mooting any legal questions about how the Endangered Species Act can be applied in this case. But that does nothing to clarify how the act should operate in other cases, and whether the law more broadly needs improvement. Instead, it sets a precedent of congressional micromanagement. In this instance, the science doesn’t seem to suggest a different practical outcome for the gray wolf. But will that be so the next time a member of Congress wants his or her own exception written into endangered species law?