WASHINGTON, March 5, 2015 – Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is standing by a proposal to de-list the gray wolf as an endangered species, but she stops short of endorsing legislation to overturn court orders that are keeping the animal under protection.

Jewell is coming under pressure from House Democrats to heed the courts and at least protect the wolf under a downgraded, threatened status.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed in 2013 to de-list the gray wolf in most of the continental United States but courts have blocked the action in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes region.

Legislation was recently introduced to finalize the de-listing. Under questioning by one of the bill’s cosponsors, Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing Thursday, Jewell didn't endorse the measure (HR 884), but she said the administration would follow its directive if enacted.

“Clearly we will uphold whatever laws are passed by Congress,” she told the committee. “My preference is certainly not to legislate the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But if Congress passed legislation certainly we will uphold the law.”

But a letter to Jewell signed by 79 House members, mostly Democrats, and delivered to Jewell ahead of the hearing proposes to list the gray wolf as threatened, rather than endangered.

“Scientific experts have shown, and courts have confirmed, that the best available science does not justify the removal of all ESA protections for gray wolves at this time,” the letter says, calling the de-listing bill an “extreme proposal.”

Downgrading the wolf to threatened status would “allow states significantly increased certainty and flexibility” in managing the animals, the letter said. Jewell said the department would see “what we’re permitted to do under the law.”

At one point in the hearing, Rep. Don Young, D-Alaska, lashed out at the signers of the letter, which included the committee’s top Democrat, Raul Grijalva of Arizona. The 79 lawmakers, Young said, “haven’t got a damn wolf in their whole district.”

Young, directing his remarks to the letter signers, went on, “I’d like to introduce them (gray wolves) in your district. If I introduced them in your district you wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore.”

The Fish and Wildlife Services believes “their science was sound, but we want to work with the best available science, so I’m sure they will be taking a look at the recommendation,” she said.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee and another cosponsor of the del-isting legislation, wrote to Jewel in January, asking her to appeal the court decision that reinstated protections for the wolf in his home state.

Peterson said reversing the court ruling would return management of the animal back to the state and help farmers and rancher facing a difficult decision between protecting their livestock and complying with another difficult federal court decision.

On a separate issue, Jewell assured the committee the department would heed a policy rider in the fiscal 2015 omnibus spending bill that would prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from finalizing rules to protect sage grouse habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

But she said the department would still meet a court-ordered deadline in September for determining whether the bird merits protection under the law. "The rider prevents us from writing any regulations .. however,  it doesn't prevent the service from coming to a determination on a listing decision."

For example, the policy rider would prevent the service would specifically implementing rules worked out with farmers and ranchers for protecting habitat of the Gunnison sage grouse, she said.