A federal judge on Thursday reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, saying the government made a political decision in removing the protections from just two of the three states where Rocky Mountain wolves roam.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said in his ruling that the entire Rocky Mountain wolf population either must be listed as an endangered species or removed from the list, but the protections for the same population can't be different for each state.
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned over wolf management to Montana and Idaho wildlife officials but left federal endangered species protections in place for wolves in Wyoming, where state law is considered hostile to the animals' survival.
"Even if the Service's solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at its heart a political solution that does not comply with the ESA," Molloy wrote in his ruling.
Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other wildlife advocates sued the federal government after the Fish and Wildlife Service decision in April 2009. They argued that the government's decision would have set a precedent allowing the government to arbitrarily choose which animals should be protected and where.
The decision puts a halt to wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho planned for this fall. Montana wildlife regulators last month set the wolf-hunt quota at 186, more than doubling last year's number, with the aim of reducing the state's wolf population.
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, but following a reintroduction program in the mid-1990s, there are now more than 1,700 in the Northern Rockies.
Doug Honnold, an attorney for EarthJustice representing the plaintiffs, said he was gratified by the ruling, though he is sure there will be another chapter to the story.
"For today, we are celebrating that the approach we thought was flatly illegal has been rejected. The troubling consequences for the Endangered Species Act has been averted and the wolf hunts are blocked," Honnold said.