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Judge clears way for wolf hunt in Idaho and Montana [Updated]

September 9, 2009 |  2:34 pm

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With four gray wolves already shot in Idaho, a federal judge in Montana has cleared the way for legal hunting of the once-endangered predators to proceed in Idaho and Montana.

U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy found there would be no irreparable harm if the hunt goes forward, though he warned that a coalition of conservation groups represented by Earthjustice have a good chance of prevailing later on their argument that it was wrong to remove endangered species protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana, but not in Wyoming.

Wolfmapi In continuing to list Wyoming wolves under the Endangered Species Act, "the [Fish and Wildlife] Service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science," the judge wrote of the Obama administration's new regulations for wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies.

"That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious," he said.

Twelve wolves were shot by hunters and other private citizens in Wyoming from April to July of 2008, when a brief lifting of federal protections allowed the state to declare most of its territory a predator zone.

With legal authority to shoot on sight, hunters and ranchers were permitted by law to chase down wolves with snow machines and even target wolves near elk feeding stations, prompting U.S. officials to retain endangered species status for the roughly 300 wolves residing there.

"It was basically just a free-fire, more than a hunt," said Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Montana.

Willcox said Molloy's new ruling suggests the judge could reject the plan for de-listing wolves in the other two states when the case gets a full hearing later.

"We're disappointed of course that the wolf hunts are proceeding, but in the big picture we are optimistic about the prospects," she said.

Conservationists' big fear is that while only 295 of the region's 1,650 wolves can be targeted by hunters this year, the new federal regulations allow the total number of wolves to drop as low as 300. Typically, large numbers of wolves are killed every year as a result of poaching, accidents and conflicts with livestock.

Molloy didn't address that issue yet. But he did find that the overall population of wolves in the region can sustain a year's harvest "in excess of 30%," which is greater than the number targeted for this year.

Legal wolf hunting opened in two areas of Idaho on Sept. 1 and will expand to most of the state by the end of the month. Montana's wolf season opens Sept. 15.

Officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported a smooth, quiet beginning to the hunt, with more than 12,300 wolf tags issued so far. Montana has sold 7,120 wolf licenses. "The system is working, and hunters are excited to have the opportunity," Jim Unsworth, deputy director of the Idaho department, said in a statement.

[Updated at 2:56 p.m.: An Eagle, Idaho, man was cited for poaching Tuesday when he shot a wolf on a public road from the back of his pickup truck in an area not open for wolf hunting. The man told officers he thought he was in a legal zone until he later checked a map.

The wolf was a small female, still a pup, according to the fish and game department. Officers, who have not filed charges pending an investigation, seized the wolf hide and skull, a camera, rifle and hunting tag.]

The department has a list of regulations for the hunt on its website, and also tips for bagging a wolf.

"Wolves regularly travel on roads and trails, just like hunters, so look for tracks and scat," it suggests. "Wolves communicate with each other through a variety of howls and other sounds, so listen. A howl at the right time, might draw in a wolf."

One of the first hunters to report a wolf kill in Idaho, Robert Millage of Kamiah, Idaho, said he had been flooded with hostile e-mails and phone calls calling him a wolf murderer and a fat redneck.

"I have a thick skin and a good sense of humor. What am I going to do, yell back at them?" he told the Lewiston Tribune. "I obeyed the law and did what [the Idaho Department of] Fish and Game wanted us to do. I can sleep well."

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: Robert Millage of Kamiah, Idaho, was one of the first hunters to report a wolf kill. Credit: Robert Millage via Associated Press

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