SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The gray wolf will become the first creature ever removed from the U.S. endangered species list by an act of Congress, rather than by scientific review, under legislation sent to the White House on Thursday.
The measure, attached as a "rider" to a budget deal given final congressional passage by the Senate, would lift federal safeguards for more than 1,200 wolves in Montana and Idaho, placing them back under state control and allowing licensed hunting of the animals.
It also would bar judicial review of the decision to rescind the federal protections.
President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill, which contains funding to keep to keep the federal government operating through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
The rider is being hailed by ranchers who see the growing wolf population in the Northern Rockies as a threat to their herds. Cattle producers, hunters and state game wardens say wolf packs in some places are preying unchecked on livestock and other animals such as elk.
"This provision is the responsible thing to do to address a very specific problem," Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat and a chief sponsor of the measure, told reporters shortly before the budget bill passed on a vote of 81-19.
Many environmental groups opposed de-listing the wolf through legislation, saying it takes the process of determining the health of a species out of the hands of scientists, and puts it in the hands of politicians.
The Obama administration had sought to quell the dispute by persuading wildlife advocates to embrace the management plans of Montana and Idaho as adequate to keep wolf populations at healthy levels now that they exceed recovery targets.
Some conservation groups backed a plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to turn over control of Montana and Idaho wolves to state game authorities. But that proposal was twice rejected by a federal judge who ruled that it violated the Endangered Species Act.
Federal protections for a number of animals have been lifted over the years through a process of scientific review established under the Endangered Species Act. But this legislation marks the first time Congress has voted to remove an animal from the endangered list.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton