SEATTLE — With four gray wolves having been killed in Idaho since Sept. 1, a federal judge has cleared the way for legal hunting of the once-endangered predators to proceed.
U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy in Montana found that there would be no irreparable harm if the limited hunt in that state and Idaho were allowed to go forward.
But the judge also wrote that the Fish and Wildlife Service, in continuing to list Wyoming wolves under the Endangered Species Act while delisting them in the two neighboring states, "has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science."
That finding suggested that a coalition of conservation groups would have a good chance of prevailing when its argument for restoring the wolves' endangered status gets a full hearing.
Twelve of the predators were killed in Wyoming between April and July last year, when the law allowed hunters and ranchers to shoot them on sight, chase them down with snow machines and target them near elk feeding stations. That law prompted federal 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.
"We're disappointed, of course, that the wolf hunts are proceeding" in Idaho and Montana, she said Wednesday, "but in the big picture, we are optimistic about the prospects."
Conservationists' main concern is that, although only 295 of the region's 1,650 wolves can be targeted by hunters this year, new federal regulations allow the total number of wolves to drop to as low as 300.
Typically, large numbers of wolves are killed every year as a result of poaching, accidents and conflicts with livestock.
Molloy did not address that issue. 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 allowed to be hunted 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 Tuesday.
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 to hunters so far.
"The system is working, and hunters are excited to have the opportunity," Deputy Director Jim Unsworth said in a statement.
Montana has issued 7,120 wolf-hunting licenses.
An Eagle, Idaho, resident was cited for poaching Tuesday when he shot a wolf from the back of his pickup truck on a public road in an area not currently open to hunters.
The wolf was a female pup, according to state Fish and Game officials. 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 hunting regulations on its website, and 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, said he had been flooded with e-mail and phone calls labeling him a "wolf murderer" and "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 Fish and Game wanted us to do. I can sleep well."
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