As Idaho and Montana prepare to open a major hunting season on a newly recovered wolf population, a coalition of groups went to court over the weekend to ask for an emergency injunction to stop the hunt.
"Beginning in less than three weeks, hundreds of gray wolves that should be protected as endangered species are about to be hunted and killed. Our only option is to seek an injunction to stop the illegal killing of wolves," Mike Garrity, director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said in announcing the petition, filed with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Actually, the hunts aren't illegal -- special legislation passed by Congress as a rider on a must-pass appropriations bill earlier this year directed that Endangered Species Act protections be lifted for the wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the population largely recovered throughout Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, with more than 1,650 wolves now ranging through much of the region.
"Under state management, the Service expects the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population will be maintained above recovery levels and no longer faces a risk of extinction," the department said in a statement this month on an agreement that will allow the last Endangered Species Act protections for the animals to be lifted in Wyoming.
But has the population really recovered? That has been the crux of the wave of alarm that has accompanied the move to state management. Conservationists fear that the wolf hunts will cripple a population they say is only marginally recovered and still very vulnerable.
"The way in which Congress acted in trying to achieve a debatable policy change by attaching a rider to the ... [appropriations bill] is a tearing away, an undermining, and a disrespect for the fundamental idea of the rule of law," Molloy wrote this month.
But lawmakers who approved the budget rider said a long series of environmental lawsuits had dragged out the normal process of de-listing the wolves and left ranchers and residents vulnerable to a predator whose numbers were expanding too quickly.
Idaho plans to allow wolf hunting in most parts of the state from Aug. 30 to March 31, and trapping from Nov. 15 through March 31 in parts of the state. The state has about 1,000 wolves and has promised that it won't go below 150.
Montana will launch an archery season on wolves Sept. 3 and a rifle season Sept. 15. Montana will allow the hunting of up to 220 of the state's 566 wolves.
The petition seeks to halt the debut of both hunts until the appeals court rules on the groups' petition seeking to have the budget rider held unconstitutional.