SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The Idaho House on Tuesday approved a measure that declares the state's wolves a "disaster emergency" -- akin to a flood or wildfire -- and gives the governor broad powers to eliminate them.
The bill, approved by a 64-5 vote, now heads to the Senate, where a dozen members have signed on as sponsors.
The legislation says the state's estimated 800 wolves are compromising public safety, destroying herds of big-game animals like elk and damaging hunting and agricultural industries.
Under existing Idaho law, a state of emergency allows the governor to marshal his police powers to lessen the impact of a declared threat.
"Folks, there is an emergency," House Speaker Lawerence Denney said during debate on the bill.
Federally protected wolves have been at the center of a bitter debate in the Northern Rockies since they were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone in the mid-1990s over the objections of ranchers and hunters who feared for livestock and wildlife.
Legal wrangling has seen wolves in Idaho and Montana removed from the endangered species list twice only to find them relisted under federal court orders.
Passage of a bill in Idaho that all but declares a war on wolves comes as a federal judge is deciding whether to sign off on a deal struck between the U.S. government and conservation groups that remove wolves again from the endangered list in Idaho and Montana.
Meanwhile, U.S. senators and representatives from Western states are seeking to delist wolves in the Rockies through congressional action, which would be unprecedented in the history of the Endangered Species Act.
Idaho and Montana have argued that wolf numbers far exceed the number required to ensure the survival of the species and that licensed hunting is needed to control an animal preying on cattle, sheep and game favored by hunters.
Leaders of the Republican-dominated Idaho legislature said the state's sovereignty was at stake and that it couldn't wait to reduce wolf numbers.
"If we don't take care of this problem soon, we won't have any wildlife to hunt or to look at," Denney said.
A spokesman declined to say if Governor Butch Otter would sign the bill if it reaches his desk before the close of the legislative session this week.
Otter has indicated more than once that he believes wolves should be under state, not federal, control.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune