By STEVE KARNOWSKI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Several members of Congress are preparing legislation to take gray wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming off the endangered list in an attempt to undo court decisions that have blocked the states from allowing wolf hunting and trapping for sport and predator control.
U.S. Rep. Reed Ribble, R-Wis., is leading the effort, his office confirmed Tuesday. Co-sponsors include U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Dan Benishek, R-Mich., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.
Ribble spokeswoman Katherine Mize said he hasn't decided exactly when to introduce the bill, but the lawmakers are circulating a draft.
"At this point it's already a bipartisan bill, but we're building bipartisan support," Mize said.
The legislation is in response to a ruling by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., last month that threw out an Obama administration decision to "delist" wolves in the western Great Lakes region, where the combined wolf population is estimated at around 3,700. That followed a similar decision by a different federal judge in September that stripped Wyoming of its wolf management authority and returned that state's wolves to federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Ribble's bill uses a strategy that succeeded in taking wolves in Idaho and Montana off the endangered list after court challenges by environmentalists blocked those efforts. Congress took matters into its own hands in 2011 and lifted the federal protections for wolves in those two states, which then allowed hunting and trapping to resume.
Peterson, the most senior member of Minnesota's congressional delegation, said he didn't know what the prospects are for this legislation, but he said they're probably better than they were in 2011 given that Republicans now control the Senate. He said he's working to line up support from other lawmakers.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell said in her 111-page ruling that the delisting, which took effect in 2012, was no more valid than the government's three previous attempts over more than a decade. While wildlife managers in the three western Great Lakes states say their wolf populations are no longer endangered and can sustain limited hunting and trapping, Howell criticized the states' regulatory plans as inadequate. She also said wolves still need federal protections because they haven't repopulated all of their historic range.
Peterson said he has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to appeal her decision and was confident it would be overturned.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire said no decision has been made on appealing Howell's December ruling but said the agency did not appeal the Wyoming decision within the 60-day limit. He said the service wasn't aware of any proposed legislation to delist wolves and couldn't comment on it.
Under Howell's ruling, wolves reverted to "threatened" status in Minnesota and "endangered" in Wisconsin and Michigan. Sport hunting and trapping is banned again in all three states, and Wisconsin and Michigan government officials can't kill wolves for preying on livestock or pets - only to protect human life.
Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said he believes the ruling is already affecting farms and ranches, particularly smaller family farms where the loss of a cow or calf or two puts a big dent in incomes.
"At some point people are going to do what they're going to do to protect their livestock. That ends up being a problem," he said.
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