BILLINGS – A federal judge has restored endangered species protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, derailing plans by three states to hold public wolf hunts in the fall.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granted a preliminary injunction late Friday, restoring the protections for the wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Molloy will eventually decide whether the injunction should be permanent.
The region has an estimated 2,000 gray wolves. They were removed from the endangered species list in March, following a decade-long restoration effort.
Environmentalists sued to overturn the decision, arguing wolf numbers would plummet if hunting were allowed. They sought the injunction in the hopes of stopping the hunts and allowing the wolf population to continue expanding.
“There were fall hunts scheduled that would call for perhaps as many as 500 wolves to be killed. We’re delighted those wolves will be saved,” said attorney Doug Honnold with Earthjustice, who had argued the case before Molloy on behalf of 12 environmental groups.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s communications director, Mark Warbis, said, “The governor disagrees with the decision and is disappointed. The wolf population in Idaho is strong. The state of Idaho has developed a sound and responsible plan for managing wolves to maintain a sustainable population. We will be examining the decision and carefully considering the next step.”
After the gray wolf was delisted, Idaho’s Fish and Game Department stepped in to manage Idaho’s wolf population, which now numbers more than 700.
When the wolves came off the endangered species list this spring, Idaho enacted a law allowing people to kill wolves to protect livestock or domestic animals. No permit is required for such killings, but they’re required to be reported to Fish and Game within 72 hours.
The state also has been working on plans for wolf hunts as part of its overall plan to manage the gray wolf as a big-game species. Otter has said he’d like to bid on the chance to be the first to shoot a wolf when Idaho opens its first wolf-hunting season.
In his ruling, Molloy said the federal government had not met its standard for wolf recovery, including interbreeding of wolves among the three states to ensure healthy genetics.
“Genetic exchange has not taken place,” the judge wrote in the 40-page decision.
Molloy said hunting and state laws allowing the killing of wolves for livestock attacks would likely “eliminate any chance for genetic exchange to occur.”
The federal biologist who led the wolf restoration program, Ed Bangs, defended the decision to delist wolves as “a very biologically sound package.”
“The hunting of wolves clearly wouldn’t endanger threatened wolf populations,” Bangs said Friday. “We felt the science was rock solid and that the delisting was warranted.”