BILLINGS, Mont. — Galvanized by court rulings protecting grizzly bears and gray wolves, Congressional Republicans on Wednesday pushed sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act despite strong objections from Democrats and wildlife advocates who called the effort a "wildlife extinction package."
Republicans began with a morning vote in the House Natural Resource Committee to strip protections from gray wolves across the contiguous U.S.
Courts restored safeguards for wolves in the Great Lakes region in 2014, frustrating states that had been allowing hunts to control wolf populations.
Later Wednesday, lawmakers took up changes to the endangered species law itself, with a suite of bills that supporters said would make the law work better and eliminate obstacles to economic progress.
Critics said the measures weaken the law by shifting power to state and local governments and away from federal scientists.
Momentum for change to the 1973 act has been building since President Donald Trump took office last year. Adding impetus to the effort was a court ruling Monday in Montana that restored protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park, putting on hold grizzly hunts that had been planned in Wyoming and Idaho.
"This ruling in Montana to me is the prime example of why Congress should modernize the Endangered Species Act," said Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican. "The grizzly bear has been fully recovered for 10 years. Even the Obama administration said so."
Barrasso said he prefers broad changes to the act rather than legislation on individual species. He has drafted legislation that includes a provision to block courts from intervening in decisions to lift protections for five years after those decisions are made. That would have prevented the grizzly ruling if it had been in place.
Other Republican proposals would speed up the process of deciding if species need protections, provide conservation incentives to landowners and give state, local and tribal governments more power in species decisions.
The hunts in Wyoming and Idaho would have been the first allowing members of the public with licenses to shoot bears in the contiguous U.S. since the 1990s. Alaska has had public grizzly bear hunting during that period.
Whether the GOP proposals ultimately succeed could hinge on who controls Congress next year. Barrasso said he does not expect significant changes to the act until after the November midterm election.
The ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, said the Republican proposals comprised a "wish list" for industries that see the law as a barrier to development.
He said blocking lawsuits from wildlife advocates who would seek to restore protections could set a dangerous precedent, by making the government unaccountable in court for its actions.
Democrats also took aim at the move to lift protections for wolves and questioned the severity of wolf attacks on livestock. Federal protections for wolves and bears are a sore spot in many rural communities, where the predators frequently are blamed in livestock attacks.