It appears that the first battle between environmental groups and emboldened Republicans in Congress is upon us. The gray wolf issue is back and as divisive as ever.

This week Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah introduced the American Big Game and Livestock Protection Act; a bill aimed at removing Endangered Species Act protection for gray wolves. Wolf management is one of the most contentious environmental issues in the West.

“Many people think wolves are cute, cuddly puppies and they ignore the facts that those of us in the West know wolves can wreak havoc on livestock and wildlife when their population numbers are not managed properly,” Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said in a statement. Enzi is one of seven co-sponsors of Hatch’s bill. There are rumors that Montana Democrat John Tester is considering supporting the bill. In the House of Representatives, a similar bill has 15 sponsors.

This bill doesn’t exactly sit well with environmentalists like Rodger Schlickelisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, who told the Miami Herald that, “These bills would sacrifice wildlife belonging to all Americans just because a small minority of people don't like wolves," he said.

The iconic wolf has been the subject of some serious attention in recent years. A symbol of the West, gray wolves are known to have roamed in abundance before most were killed in the 1930s. It wasn’t until 1972 that the species was given protection. Now, after the population has grown to numbers estimated between 11,000 and 16,000, many Westerners are urging the federal government to give that protection authority to the states.

For a brief time, this sort of did happen. In the spring of 2008, gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list in the northern Rocky Mountain states. Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were all tasked with developing hunting regulations, population controls, systems for ranchers to report wolf encroachments on their cattle, while maintaing protection for the wolves at the same time. Not surprisingly, environmental groups rebuked this idea and sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Opposition to this policy was only enflamed when high numbers of wolf killings were reported in Wyoming shortly after the policy went in place.

Then the federal government put the wolves back on the list; and then took them off in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming. Outside of Yellowstone National Park, where wolf populations are the highest, several stories have come out about ranchers who continue to feel hamstrung when it comes to protecting their livestock from predators. Humans aren’t the only creatures that love burgers. But for ranchers, feeding a wolf is one costly burger that is a direct threat to their livelihoods.

So once again, the same wolf debate heats up in Washington. We have already heard about “cuddly puppies,” “wildlife sacrifice,” state rights and poorly enforced state policies. Something tells me this debate won't get solved this time around. 

Interactive: Our gray wolves still endangered?

Congress wants wolves off endangered species list
One of the most difficult debates of the American West is back in Washington, D.C.