BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A pair of federal judges will decide
which states in the Northern Rockies have enough gray wolves to
allow public hunting, as the bitter debate over the region's wolves
heads to courts in Wyoming and Montana.
Environmentalists filed a lawsuit in Missoula on Tuesday seeking
to restore protections for more than 1,300 wolves in Montana and
Idaho. The Obama administration in April upheld a Bush-era decision
to take wolves off the endangered species list in those two states.
The lawsuit could block regulated wolf hunts slated to begin
this fall and scuttle a plan to remove all the predators from part
of north central Idaho.
Gray wolves remain on the endangered species list in Wyoming,
but in another lawsuit, Wyoming attorney General Bruce Salzburg on
Tuesday asked a federal judge in Cheyenne to clear the way for
hunts in his state. Salzburg rejected claims by federal officials
that local laws were too weak to protect Wyoming's 300 wolves.
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, after they had
been wiped out across the lower 48 states in the early 20th century
by hunting and government-sponsored poisoning. Following an
intensive reintroduction program, there are now an estimated 1,645
wolves in the Northern Rockies, not including this year's pups.
"There's absolutely no question this population is fully
recovered. There's wolves moving all over the place," said Ed
Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Wolves were returned to Wyoming, Idaho and parts of Montana in
the mid-1990s over strong objections from ranchers and many
politicians. The effort has cost the government $30 million to
In Wyoming, the complaints have grown as wolves take a bloody
toll on livestock and big game herds. Ranchers say the number of
wolves shot by federal wildlife agents - 264 last year alone - has
not been enough to curb livestock killings that hit a record high
Wyoming law declares almost 90 percent of the state a "predator
zone" where wolves can be shot on sight. For now, however, that
law is superseded by federal protections.
"We have to attempt to protect our wildlife and our livestock
in the face of really no help from the federal government," said
Wyoming House Speaker Colin Simpson. "If the only way to do that
is through litigation, then that's how we'll have to proceed."
Bangs said the agency had no choice but to reject Wyoming's wolf
management plan. Last summer, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in
Missoula pointed to the state's predator zone as a prime reason for
throwing out an earlier federal proposal to take wolves off the
"The Wyoming plan folded like a house of cards the first time
anybody took a hard look at it," Bangs said.
For Montana and Idaho, federal officials say the threat of
extinction has passed and the population is large enough to survive
on its own. But the environmental groups and the Humane Society of
the United States argue that the wolves' biological success could
quickly be reversed absent federal oversight.
"Idaho in particular has shown an eagerness to aggressively
reduce its wolf population," said Jenny Harbine, an attorney with
Earthjustice who helped write the environmentalists' lawsuit.
"Until states commit to managing their wolf populations in a
responsible and sustainable manner, federal protections remain
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