U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy on Wednesday upheld a congressional rider removing gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection.
The decision means wolves are delisted in Montana and Idaho, and those states may go ahead with their scheduled wolf hunting seasons this fall. Wolves are also delisted in parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah.
Idaho's season begins Sept. 1, with an unlimited quota, while Montana's is expected to start Oct. 22 with a 220-wolf quota.
"If I were not constrained by what I believe is binding precedent ... I would hold Section 1713 unconstitutional because it violates the Separation of Powers doctrine," Molloy wrote in his 18-page decision.
But he added higher courts have held that "so long as Congress uses the words 'without regard to any other provision in statute or regulation that applies,' or something similar, then the doctrine of constitutional avoidance requires the court to impose a saving interpretation."
The case, which pitted animal activist groups against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, questioned whether Congress could end the debate over taking wolves off the endangered species list by changing the law.
In April, Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson amended an appropriations bill to remove wolves from federal protection, adding that their change "shall not be subject to judicial review."
That moved the wolf debate from a specific question - whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service legally allowed Montana and Idaho state wildlife agencies to take over wolf management but kept Wyoming under federal control - to a test of one of the highest principles in U.S. government.
Montana Wool Growers Association President Dave Hinnaland lauded the work of Tester and Simpson for their work in putting a halt to the years of costly and unnecessary litigation brought by so-called environmental groups on the gray wolf.
"Every Montanan understands that the endless litigation surrounding wolf management has done extensive harm to Montana's wolf population by lessening the tolerance for the presence of the animal on Montana's landscape," said Hinnaland. "Montana's sheep industry is hopeful that with this ruling Montana will finally be allowed to put in place and carry out its wolf management plan, a plan and process with which our association members have been and continue to be actively involved."
Reprinted in part from The Missoulian, Montana