The recently passed budget deal was woefully short on actual spending cuts, but it did include a couple of provisions that will benefit Western ranchers battling wolves and worrying that they will lose federal grazing rights.
The Department of the Interior has on three different occasions tried to remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection. Officials say the wolves have recovered sufficiently in much of the West to remove them from the endangered species list.
A provision of the budget deal removes federal protection of wolves in some areas, and in other states where protections remain the responsibility of enforcement will be the duty of the state.
Legislators said that without action the wolves would have remained on the endangered list indefinitely, and subjected ranchers to further depredation without recourse.
Environmentalists are dismayed.
"This is the first time in all of the history of the Endangered Species Act that Congress has ever legislated to remove protection of a species," Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, told NPR. "We are, of course, extremely worried that this could represent some kind of a precedent."
Generally, we don't favor Congress carving out special protections or exceptions in federal law. In this case, however, the Department of the Interior, which is empowered by the ESA to make such decisions, tried three times to remove the wolves' protected status. Three times that decision was overruled by a federal judge. Congress has only sought to legislate what the executive branch has already decided.
Increasingly, activists have come to depend on the courts as the final arbiter in their favor of all things concerning the environment. Under the Constitution, courts are free to decide cases based on how facts relate to their interpretation of the law. Congress has the sole authority to draft and enact the law. Congress created the Endangered Species Act, and it is free to amend it.
Congress also controls the purse, and has in the budget deal used that authority to block the Department of the Interior from spending money to implement the administration's "wild lands" policy.
Secretary Ken Salazar said the policy would restore eligibility for wilderness protection to millions of acres of public land. Western legislators of both parties said the policy would actually allow the administration to grant millions of acres of land all of the protections of wilderness areas without receiving the required congressional authorization.
We would prefer that Congress make more permanent changes to the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws that strike a reasonable balance between protection and the needs of farmers and ranchers. Until then, we'll take whatever measures politics allows.