A proposal to settle years of litigation and allow public hunting of wolves in parts of the Northern Rockies faced its first legal test on Thursday when it went before a federal judge who has twice rebuffed attempts to lift protections for the predators.
The hearing before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula followed a settlement agreement last week between the Obama administration and 10 animal activist groups. Facing pressure from Western lawmakers in Congress, the groups agreed to give up their fight to keep nearly 1,300 wolves on the endangered list in Idaho and Montana. In exchange, the government would retain protections, at least temporarily, for about 400 wolves in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Thursday's settlement discussion had three possible outcomes, called indicative rulings. Molloy could decide it had no value and ignore it, leaving the wolf delisting case before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals or he could say he liked the settlement and indicate to the 9th Circuit that the matter should end right there. The third option would be to say the settlement raised good questions that needed more courtroom time, and that Molloy would like to have the case back in his jurisdiction. Because the case has been officially moved to the 9th Circuit, Molloy can only request permission to get back in the driver's seat.
Molloy has rejected past government decisions on wolves that he said were politically motivated. He is being asked to do so again by several activist groups that refused to sign off on the settlement with the administration. The settling plaintiffs would give up their right to challenge any new delisting rule for five years.
Supporters of the settlement said they want to get past two decades of legal battles over wolves in the West. At the same time, they are trying to preempt wolf legislation before Congress that could have broader implications for other plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
For the deal to go forward, Molloy must agree to suspend a ruling made last August in which the judge faulted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a 2009 decision that took wolves off the endangered list in Montana and Idaho but not neighboring Wyoming. Molloy said the recovery of wolves across the region was incomplete if they remained in danger in Wyoming. He said federal wildlife laws do not allow for recovery decisions to be based on political boundaries.
As part of the agreement with the administration, the Department of Interior would conduct an independent review of the animal's status within four years. In the meantime, Idaho and Montana could resume hunts for the animals that were suspended after just one season.
Lawmakers from the region have vowed to keep pressing their bills to delist wolves at least until the settlement is finalized. Some of those measures would go much farther than last week's settlement and delist wolves nationwide.
Reprinted in part from Associated Press