BOZEMAN, Mont. (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday restored endangered species protection for gray wolves in Montana and Idaho, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can’t delist wolves in those states but not in Wyoming. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves “must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population and protected accordingly.”
“The rule delisting the gray wolf must be set aside because, though it may be a pragmatic solution to a difficult biological issue, it is not a legal one,” the judge in Missoula wrote.
Judge Molloy agreed with wildlife advocates who argued that the Endangered Species Act does not allow the agency to list the species as endangered in some areas but not in others.
The Fish and Wildlife Service turned over wolf management to Montana and Idaho last year, but kept federal protections in place for Wyoming gray wolves, because it found Wyoming’s regulations inadequate.
Montana and Idaho used wolf hunts to help manage their growing wolf populations. Molloy’s ruling halts those hunts until the agency decides whether the entire region’s gray wolves should be protected or delisted.
Last September, Molloy rejected calls to quash the hunts, but also signaled that the government’s inconsistent delisting decision “seems arbitrary and capricious.”
On Thursday, Molloy acknowledged that the delisting decision may have been the “pragmatic” solution to the “inadequacy of Wyoming’s regulatory mechanisms,” but said it still flouts environmental law.
“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 [Endangered Species Act],” he wrote.
He vacated the rule identifying the northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolf as a distinct population.
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, but have been gaining in numbers since they were reintroduced into the northern Rockies in the mid-1990s. The population has grown to more than 1,700 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission said it has asked the state to appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit.
Last year’s wolf hunt in Montana saw 73 wolves killed, while 185 were killed in Idaho.
Though Molloy’s ruling ends this year’s hunt, most ranchers will still be allowed to kill wolves that attack their livestock.
The ruling could also affect a lawsuit filed by Wyoming, which challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refusal to include Wyoming in the states wolves were delisted.