Gray wolves in the northern Rockies regained endangered-species protections Friday when a federal judge in Montana granted a preliminary injunction to environmentalists, who had challenged the wolves' delisting.
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.
The judge's ruling nullifies plans by Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to hold wolf hunts this fall.
In a strongly worded 40-page order issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy of Missoula, Mont., called the wolves' delisting arbitrary and capricious, and said it "demonstrated a possibility of irreparable harm" to the species.
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."
The injunction will "ensure the species is not imperiled," reinstating endangered species protections while the case continues to be litigated, the judge wrote.
But his order also will trigger a federal rule that was modified in January to allow the wolves to be killed if they threaten "property." That allows ranchers to shoot wolves when they believe their livestock are at risk.
Wildlife officials said the rule was revised so that states or ranchers could deal with wolves that were affecting livestock if delisting was tied up in court.
That rule is also being challenged in Molloy's court.
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.
"At this point in time, the court hasn't seen the administrative records, they haven't seen the briefs on the case, there is a lot of legal work to be done and a lot of information the court isn't even aware of," said federal biologist Ed Bangs, who led Fish and Wildlife's wolf-recovery effort. "So the fact that the injunction ruling went against our position is disappointing, but it's not too surprising." That information could be presented as the case progresses.
In granting the injunction, 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" and is in fact rare, the judge wrote. He cited a 2007 study commissioned by the wildlife service itself.
"Genetic exchange that has not taken place between larger subpopulations under [Endangered Species Act] protections is not likely to occur with fewer wolves under state management," Molloy wrote.
State officials expressed disappointment over the order and said they would examine legal options. Bangs said the government would consider an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Since delisting went into effect at the end of March, ranchers, state officials and others have killed more than 100 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
"They've been killing wolves at the rate of about one a day," said Doug Honnold, an attorney with the environmental legal group Earthjustice who argued the case on behalf of 12 environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. "That's carnage any way you look at it, and this is going to at least temporarily put a stop to the killing of wolves."