By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Conservationists asked a federal court on Monday to stop wolf hunts under way in Idaho and Montana until judges rule on an appeal that seeks to restore federal protections to the animals in the two states.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others told the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals that more than 200 wolves have been killed in Idaho and Montana so far this year from a population estimated at between 1,300 and 1,600.
They argued that wolves will suffer irreparable harm now that a hunting season allowing rifles has opened in Idaho and is due to open in Montana, according to legal documents.
The two states have issued nearly 37,000 wolf permits, which Alliance head Michael Garrity said could lead to a "slaughter."
"Nearly 37,000 humans armed with high-powered rifles and long-range scopes will now be trying to kill the wolves in Montana and Idaho," Garrity said in a statement.
The states contend wolves are thriving and that they should be hunted like other wildlife. Idaho is seeking to reduce its wolf population by about 80 percent and Montana is seeking to cull roughly 40 percent of its wolves, mostly through hunting.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the mid-1990s reintroduced fewer than 100 wolves to the Northern Rockies after hunting, trapping and poisoning campaigns pushed the creatures to the point of extinction.
The reintroduction happened over the protests of ranchers, who feared wolves would threaten livestock, and commercial outfitters, who blamed wolves for preying on prized game animals like elk.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and the states sought for years to lift U.S. Endangered Species Act protections from the animals in Idaho and Montana but those efforts - which would clear the way for hunts - were blocked by environmentalists.
Congress passed a measure in April removing wolves in the two states from the threatened and endangered species list. It was the first time federal protections had been lifted from an animal by congressional action rather than scientific review.
Alliance and other groups are appealing an August decision by a federal judge upholding the delisting. Ninth Circuit judges have already denied a previous request by conservationists to stay wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana.
A spokesman for Idaho Governor C. L. "Butch" Otter did not respond on Monday to a request for comment.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)