Facing mounting pressure from Congress, wildlife advocates and the U.S. Department of Interior today reached an agreement to lift gray wolf protections in Montana and Idaho and allow hunting of the predators to resume.
The settlement agreement, opposed by some environmentalists, is intended to resolve years of litigation that have shielded wolves in the Northern Rockies from hunting, even as the predator's population has sharply expanded.
Terms of the deal were to be filed in U.S. District Court in Montana. It would keep the species on the endangered list, at least temporarily, in four states where they are considered most vulnerable: Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah. And it calls for a scientific panel to re-examine wolf recovery goals that set a minimum population level of 300 wolves in the region.
There are an estimated 1,651 wolves in the region following a costly but successful restoration effort.
With Western lawmakers threatening to intervene, environmentalists said they wanted to pre-empt precedent-setting federal legislation on wolves. They fear congressional intervention could broadly undermine the Endangered Species Act.
Although wolf hunting in Idaho and Montana could begin as soon as this fall, the deal provides assurances to protect the species over the long term and even expand its range into other states, Suckling said.
Not all of the groups involved in wolf litigation agreed to the settlement, which will complicate efforts to garner approval from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula. Molloy's support is crucial because he must agree to put a stay on an order he issued last summer that reinstated wolf protections in Idaho and Montana.
Attorneys for Earthjustice previously represented most of the plaintiffs in the case. They withdrew this week citing "ethical obligations," but three of the four groups opposed to Friday's agreement already have brought on new attorneys.
Reprinted in part from Bozeman News