Billings, Mont. • Lawmakers from the Northern Rockies say pending bills aimed at getting gray wolves off the endangered species list have little chance of passage this year.
A time crunch, coupled with unresolved partisan differences on the issue, means several wolf bills introduced in the lead-up to the election are likely to die without action.
With only a few working weeks left in the 111th Congress, attention is focused on a few major items, including unemployment, Medicare and nuclear proliferation.
"If they're under the gun for all these issues, they're not going to want to gum things up with a controversial issue like wolves," said Brad Hoaglun, a spokesman for Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch.
He said it was "highly unlikely" any of several wolf bills will advance.
Representatives of lawmakers from Wyoming, Idaho and Montana said that leaves little room to make their case that the wolf population is strong enough to withstand proposed public hunts.
The legislation could be reintroduced next year.
More than 1,700 wolves now inhabit Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon. They were taken off the endangered list in 2007 and again last year, but then re-listed both times under court order following lawsuits from wildlife advocates.
There were only a few dozen wolves in the region as recently as the mid-1990s. The groups behind the lawsuits say the species' numbers could easily crash under plans to hunt wolves in the heart of their range in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
But as livestock killings by the predators have increased, so has political pressure to curb the wolves' expansion.
It's uncertain how the issue might shift in the next Congress, which will have a Republican-controlled House.
A primarily Republican group of lawmakers from the region have offered the most far-reaching proposals to pave the way for wolf hunting. They want to amend the Endangered Species Act to cut wolves out.
The region's two Democratic lawmakers, Montana Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus, have offered what they say is a more limited solution that would keep the endangered act intact.
Their bill would keep wolves fully protected in Wyoming, which was singled out in one of the court cases for a state law considered too hostile to wolves. But the animals would come off the list in Montana and Idaho, which have wolf management plans already approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under its plan, Montana set a quota of 186 wolves this year for a hunt that had to be canceled following the success of the wildlife advocates' lawsuit. Idaho never set a 2010 quota, but the state's long-term goal was to reduce its wolf population from current estimates of at least 843 animals to roughly 500.
Baucus said last Friday in a meeting with Missoula businessmen that the best way to deal with the issue may be to make a small change in law. He said he was looking at a plan that would simply allow a judge to divide sub-populations of endangered species by political divisions.
He said that could allow the judge in the case to OK the Montana and Idaho wolf management plans. An outright exemption from the endangered species act won't pass through Congress, Baucus said.
"This is the approach we think will work," he said, but questioned whether it could be passed in the lame duck session of Congress.
Yet even if the Democratic bill started to advance, Wyoming lawmakers could balk at being left out.
On Thursday, a federal judge ordered the government to reconsider whether Wyoming's wolf management plan was adequate to meet recovery goals for the species.
U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne said the Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to insist Wyoming change its plan to give wolves more protection before the agency would end federal oversight.
Wyoming proposes to classify wolves as predators that could be shot on sight outside of Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area.
Associated Press writer Matt Gouras in Helena contributed to this report.