Sep 9, 2009 4:59 PM by Associated Press
Gray wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho may continue, a federal judge ruled Wednesday, denying a request by environmentalists and animal welfare groups to stop the first legal hunts in the lower 48 states in decades.
Plans to kill about 20 percent of the two states' estimated 1,350 wolves will not cause long-term harm to the population, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy concluded.
But he added that by carving Wyoming out of the recent decision to remove wolves from federal protection, the Obama administration appeared to violate the Endangered Species Act by making its decision based on political boundaries.
That means environmentalists could ultimately prevail in their bid to restore endangered species protection for the animals if they challenge on those grounds.
Idaho started its wolf hunting season last week in its central and northern mountains.
Idaho set a quota of 220 wolves for this hunting season as part of its plan for managing the wolf population. The quota is 75 in Montana, where hunting is set to start next week.
The wolves were removed from the endangered species list in those states just four months ago and after a controversial reintroduction program that started in 1995.
Environmental groups fear there aren't enough state protections in place to maintain their comeback.
"The human population successfully eradicated wolves from this region in the early part of the 20th century, and it would be a true shame after all the efforts that went into recovery if that happened again," said Jenny Harbine, an attorney for Earthjustice, a plaintiff in the case.
Gray wolves were once abundant across North America, but by the 1930s had been largely exterminated outside Alaska and Canada.
About 300 wolves in Wyoming are still under federal protection because the government has not approved the state's management plan.
Last year, about a dozen wolves were killed in Wyoming during a brief period when the state management plan declared wolves wandering outside established recovery zones could be shot and killed on sight. That policy was later scrapped by a federal judge.