BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Four months after the government removed gray wolves from the endangered species list, a federal judge has ruled that the first hunts for them in the contiguous United States in decades can proceed.
In a decision issued late Tuesday, the judge, Donald W. Molloy of the Federal District Court for Montana, denied a request by environmentalists and animal welfare groups that he stop the hunts, in Montana and Idaho.
Judge Molloy said plans by the two states to allow hunters to kill more than 20 percent of the estimated 1,350 wolves there would not cause long-term harm to the species. He said the wolf population could sustain a hunting harvest in excess of 30 percent and still bounce back.
Idaho, which introduced a wolf hunting season on Sept. 1, has a quota allowing as many as 220 wolves to be killed. Montana, whose season begins next Tuesday, has a quota of 75.
While Judge Molloy’s ruling denied an injunction that would have put a halt to this fall’s hunts, it left unresolved the broader fight, brought by the environmentalists in their continuing lawsuit, over whether wolves should be returned to the endangered species list.
The judge did say, however, that the Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to have violated the Endangered Species Act when it carved Wyoming out of its decision to lift protections in May for wolves elsewhere in the Northern Rockies.
‘The service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science,” he said. “That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious.”
That statement suggested that the environmentalists could ultimately prevail in their effort to restore the wolf’s protections.
Doug Honnold, a lawyer who argued the case on behalf of groups opposed to the hunts, offered a mixed reaction to the ruling.
“If they violated the Endangered Species Act, then this population eventually is going to have to go back on the list,” Mr. Honnold said.
But he also said that he was disappointed that the injunction request had been denied, and that he “took no comfort” in Judge Molloy’s statement that the population could withstand a hunt.
A decision on whether to appeal the ruling could be made by Thursday.
Joshua Winchell, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the ruling confirmed the agency’s assessment that the Northern Rockies’ gray wolves had recovered, at least in terms of sheer numbers. But Mr. Winchell acknowledged that the ruling also raised legal issues that were more far-reaching.
“Obviously, we want to make sure we’re doing right by the law, too,” he said, adding that the agency would consult with the Justice Department on the issue.