BILLINGS, Mont. -- Hunters can keep stalking gray wolves for now in the Northern Rockies, but the killing may be short-lived after a federal judge found problems with the recent removal of the animal from the endangered species list.
In a ruling late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy denied a request by environmentalists and animal welfare groups to stop the hunts in Idaho and Montana -- the first organized wolf hunts in the lower 48 states in decades.
Plans to kill more than 20 percent of the estimated 1,350 wolves in the two states would not cause long-term harm to the species, Molloy said.
The ruling, however, left unresolved the broader question of whether wolves should be returned to the federal endangered list.
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Molloy said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to have violated the Endangered Species Act when it carved Wyoming out of its decision to lift protections in May for wolves elsewhere in the region.
About 300 wolves in Wyoming remain on the endangered list.
"The service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science. That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious," Molloy wrote in his 14-page ruling.
The judge said groups that have sued to restore the endangered status of gray wolves "have demonstrated a likelihood of success" in the case. If that reasoning holds, future hunts could be blocked.
Molloy sided with environmentalists last year when they argued that a Wyoming state law allowing wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state would put the population in peril.
As a result, the U.S. government kept Wyoming's wolves on the endangered list when it ended protections in Montana and Idaho. Wyoming has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the Fish and Wildlife decision not to delist wolves in that state.
Hunting supporters, including wildlife officials in Idaho and Montana, said they hoped to change Molloy's mind as the lawsuit to restore the endangered status of gray wolves proceeds. A trial date has not been set.
Idaho and Montana have set quotas allowing hunters to take a combined 295 wolves in the two states. That's about 22 percent of the total population of the animals in those areas. An estimated 10 percent of the region's wolves are killed illegally every year.
Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of 14 groups that sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said a favorable ruling by Molloy in the lawsuit could have spinoff ramifications for other species. He pointed to the recent removal of federal protections for a rodent in Wyoming -- the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. The mouse kept its protected status in Colorado.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Joshua Winchell said Molloy's ruling on the hunt confirmed the gray wolf has recovered in the Northern Rockies, at least in terms of sheer numbers. But he acknowledged that it also raised separate and potentially far-reaching legal issues.
Hunters in Idaho have so far reported taking four wolves since hunting opened there on Sept. 1.
The figure includes a wolf pup that authorities said was shot illegally last weekend from behind a pickup truck in an area closed to hunting. Montana's season is set to begin Sept. 15.