Although Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama stood firm against Republican attempts to repeal clean air and clean water protections, wolves (such as the famous Limpy) in the Northern Rockies weren’t so lucky.

Under pressure from ranching interests in Montana and Idaho, as well as anti-wolf zealots in those states, Reid and Obama agreed to accept an amendment from Montana Democrat Jon Tester mandating the removal of grey wolves in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list. For Obama, at least, the move isn’t surprising: his administration backed the Bush administration’s delisting of wolves even though it would allow the two massive states to cut wolf populations to as few as 450 individuals between them.

While the decision is bad news for the ecology of the Northern Rockies, where wolves play an important role in keeping elk and deer herds healthy, it also sets a disturbing precedent.

Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickheisen told The New York Times:

In all the decades of the Endangered Species Act, Congress has never legislatively removed protections for any species. It’s bad to do it for the wolf, and it could set a very bad precedent, replacing scientific determinations with politics.

The extraordinary thing about this action is that it was eminently preventable — and may still be if environmentalists are willing to act a little more like wolves and less like lambs. The reality is that the American people love wolves and other charismatic predators — and want politicians to protect them.

That came through in spades during the 2008 presidential campaign when Defenders of Wildlife ran a hard-hitting ad attacking Sarah Palin for her support of aerial hunting of wolves:

This ad worked in spades — according to independent research by the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, it was one of the most effective spots of the entire 2008 election cycle. According to Glenn Kesller of HCD Research, which conducted the study:

The ad which focuses on Governor Palin’s record regarding the treatment of wildlife in Alaska seemed to strike a chord with voters. The recent ads from both parties have had little impact among voters. This is the first ad in over a month that seems to have broken through.

Here’s the reality: wildlife advocates could legitimately run an equally hard-hitting ad targeting President Obama or Senator Reid and would likely change the politics of this issue very quickly. Obama in particular is particularly vulnerable on wildlife issues: despite important habitat designations for polar bears and beluga whales, Ken Salazar’s Interior Department has listed endangered species at one of the lowest rates of modern presidents, just slightly ahead of George W. Bush.

If Democrats start to feel real heat in a way that resonates emotionally, wolf killing will cease to be a way for them to portray themselves as in tune with big ranching interests, and start to become a political liability. More broadly, it would send a clear message to the administration that any attacks on wildlife could create political problems for them. In other words, sending a strong signal now is a way to avoid having to blast Obama, Reid and other Democrats in the future — and help ensure that wolves and other native wildlife remain part of America’s natural heritage for generations to come.