Gray wolves get back their endangered species status, for now.
Gray wolves regained endangered-species protections Friday when a federal judge in Montana granted a preliminary injunction to environmentalists, who had challenged the wolves' delisting.
The decision came just months before planned fall hunts in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, which will now be canceled.
U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy issued a strongly worded 40-page critique of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to delist the gray wolves, calling it arbitrary and capricious. He said the action "demonstrated a possibility of irreparable harm" to the species. The injunction "ensures the species is not imperiled" while the case continues to be litigated, the judge wrote.
The wildlife service "provides no new evidence or research to support its change of course," Molloy wrote. "Congress does not intend agency decision-making to be fickle. When it is, the line separating rationality from arbitrariness and capriciousness is crossed."
Molloy pointed to the recovery criteria cited by the wildlife service in 1994. Those criteria include "genetic exchange between subpopulations" -- crossbreeding among scattered groups of wolves -- so the species would be genetically viable in the long term.
"Genetic exchange has not taken place," the judge wrote. He cited a 2007 study commissioned by the wildlife service itself.
Gray wolves once ranged from central Mexico to the Arctic. But by the
1930s, rampant hunting had virtually wiped them out across the American
West. In 1974, gray wolves were listed as endangered.
Since then, the federal government has spent about $27 million to revive the wolves' population.
In 1995 and 1996, officials introduced 66 wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, aiming to establish a stable population of at least 300 animals. When delisted earlier this year, wolves in the northern Rockies numbered 1,513, the judge wrote. Wildlife service officials say the population is increasing by about 24% a year.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials announced in February that gray wolves would be removed from the endangered species list after what they termed a successful 20-year effort to reestablish the wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Environmentalists sued.
Photo: A gray wolf pup. Credit: Kent Kauden / Associated Press