BILLINGS, Mont. – 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.
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.