Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fur May Fly Over Federal Bait and Switch

Imperial Washington has some states on the verge of rebellion. They’re acting out in various ways. Some are taking ObamaCare to court. Others are challenging Washington on firearms and emissions controls. One state, Arizona, is bucking Uncle Sam on immigration enforcement.

But what, one wonders, will be the breaking point? When will all the neo-federalist saber-rattling -- all the talk of the 10th Amendment, the 17th Amendment, nullification – cross the line and become in-your-face defiance? What state, what governor, will take this resistance movement the next step, and force the seemingly-inevitable showdown, by just saying "no" to Washington?

I think the breaking point may come in a relatively unexpected place, on a relatively obscure issue -- wolf reintroduction.

The history of federal re-wilding efforts involving gray wolves is too convoluted to detail here. But the program's statistical success, instead of quelling the controversy, is actually bringing the conflict to a fresh boil, as Wyoming, Idaho and Montana fight for a federal de-listing decision they think science and the original program benchmarks support. One federal judge in Missoula thinks otherwise, and recently reversed wolf de-listing at the behest of green litigants. Frustrated states, feeling betrayed by what they view as a bait-and-switch, seem on the verge of open rebellion. There is talk of states refusing to enforce federal wolf protections, in the face of an escalating number of conflicts between man and beast.

The fight over wolves has from the beginning been a states' rights dispute, but it's becoming more obviously so every day.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat who gained and maintained popularity in the Cowboy State by standing up to Washington on a range of issues, precipitated the most recent conflict, by declining to strictly follow federal dictates on how states should manage the booming number of reintroduced wolves. It was that lack of uniformity, across the 3 states most impacted by the re-wilding effort, that served as the pretext for a recent re-listing of the animals by a federal judge in Montana. That reversal of a widely-applauded de-listing decision angered many and reignited the conflict.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's announcement that his state will no longer pay compensation for livestock kills by wolves, his bitter accusations of promises broken by the federal government and his evoking of Idaho's "sovereign right to protect our wildlife" from wolf predation, seem to move us a step closer to a showdown -- one that's fueled by the powerlessness Westerners feel living in Washington's long shadow.

Some are hoping to get relief by working the issue in Washington, but that's a fool's errand, if history is any guide. Environmentalism Inc. has a lot of lobbying clout inside the beltway. It has turned back any and all attempts to reform, temper or tweak the Endangered Species Act. Non-Westerners in Congress don't understand or don't care about the law's impacts out here. Getting Congress to intervene on the side of common sense seems like mission impossible. State legislators also are talking strategy, but what they can do about any of this is questionable.

Legal avenues to relief remain open, but fickle federal judges and conflicting and contradictory rulings make coherent policymaking nearly impossible. Today the wolves are listed, tomorrow they're not. Two days later, some robed dictator in a federal courthouse, interpreting an inflexible and unworkable law, is pushing policy in another direction. Public lands policy-making through judicial edict helped create this jumbled mess: no reasonable person looks there for the answer.

All this, along with the frustration that comes from feeling betrayed, and the fact that wolf recovery benchmarks keep shifting, has people in wolf-impacted states in a very rebellious mood, with some at the grassroots pushing for a non-compliance or open defiance. The old joke about adopting the "Triple S" approach to wolf management -- shoot, shovel and shut-up -- is now told in less jocular tones. A sagebrush rebellion is being reborn. Wolf management is becoming a states' rights issue, setting the stage for a test of wills.

How Washington would police the far-flung federal wolfpack without state assistance is unknown. It probably lacks the resources and manpower to do so. Would President Obama sue states to force compliance, or dispatch the national guard to babysit federal wolves if states refuse to comply with a court order? That could precipitate quite a showdown -- perhaps even bigger than what's happening in Arizona -- given the anti-Washington mood that prevails.

No one relishes the thought of such a confrontation, but unless something soon gives -- either the states or the feds -- that seems to be the path we're walking. On this issue, wolf-impacted states feel as if they've given all they can, and more. For every inch they've given, a mile has been taken. And if the fur must fly, it might as well fly over this issue.

No comments: