A coalition of environmental and animal rights groups asked a federal judge Thursday to stop wolf hunting seasons in Idaho and Montana planned for this fall.
The groups contend the hunting seasons, when combined with other forms of wolf mortality, threaten the recovery of the species they say is still vulnerable.
“Wolves need to be managed, but in a responsible way that allows for a healthy wolf population while reducing conflicts, rather than aggravating them,” said Suzanne Stone of the Defenders of Wildlife at Boise. “The bottom line is that the federal delisting and state management plans don’t provide for a sustainable wolf population in the Northern Rockies, and wolves should not be hunted at this time – particularly not at the unsustainable levels that have been announced for this fall.”
An attorney for the groups called the hunting seasons “indiscriminate wolf killing.”
“Wolf hunting is premature. The states haven’t demonstrated that they are ready to achieve and maintain legitimate wolf recovery,” said Douglas Honnold of EarthJustice in Bozeman. “We will work to stop this indiscriminate wolf killing.”
The groups previously filed a lawsuit seeking to reverse the federal government’s decision last spring to remove wolves in Idaho and Montana from federal protection. Wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho wilderness areas and Yellowstone National Park more than a dozen years ago. Their numbers quickly swelled and surpassed delisting criteria of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs each in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for three consecutive years. Wolf managers believe there is a minimum of 1,500 wolves in the region and at least 880 in Idaho.
On Monday, Idaho set wolf harvest limits that would allow hunters to kill as many as 220 wolves this fall or about 25 percent of the population. Without wolf hunting, state wildlife biologists said the population will be more than 1,000 in January. They also expressed doubt hunters would be able to kill 220 wolves in single year.
Montana approved plans that would allow hunters to kill 75 wolves or 15 percent of the population in the state.
On Thursday, the groups asked Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, Mont., to order an emergency halt to the wolf hunting seasons. Last year Molloy granted a similar request, and wolves were soon put back on the list of threatened species protected by the federal government.
Nate Helm, executive director of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife Idaho, said the request for an injunction was expected. His group intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the federal government and will respond to the injunction request.
“It seems evident to us Idaho has followed all of things that they have been required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do. We feel like we have done everything we can to put us back in the management drivers seat.”
If the injunction is not granted, Idaho’s wolf hunting season will begin Sept. 1 in some areas and Oct. 1 in most of the rest of the state.
Many hunters believe, and biologists for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game have argued, that wolves are keeping depressed elk herds in some areas of the state from rebounding, like in the upper Clearwater Basin and the Sawtooth Mountains. But the environmental groups claim wolf populations, while doing well, have not reached levels where they can be self-sustaining over a long period of time.
They say too few wolves from different sub populations are interbreeding, and hunting will further curtail genetic diversity of the population. The groups argue wolf delisting rules and state management plans allow Idaho and Montana to reduce wolf populations to as low as 150 in each state. Idaho officials have said they would like to eventually have a wolf population that numbers about 520.