By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A federal judge on Saturday rejected a plan negotiated between the government and wildlife advocates to remove most wolves in the Northern Rockies from the Endangered Species List.
The deal struck earlier this month between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 10 conservation groups would have lifted federal protections from an estimated 1,200 wolves in Idaho and Montana, allowing those states to restore licensed hunting of the animals.
A similar plan for removing Endangered Species Act safeguards for wolves in Montana and Idaho, and turning management of the animals over to state game officials, was implemented by the federal government in 2009.
But 14 conservation groups challenged that move in court, and a U.S. district judge in Missoula, Montana, sided with the environmentalists in August of 2010, ordering federal protections of the wolves restored.
The same judge, Donald Molloy, refused Saturday to approve the latest de-listing plan, which 10 of the 14 conservation groups had hammered out with the Obama administration. The four remaining groups opposed the settlement.
They said in legal filings that supporters of the proposed settlement were improperly being driven by a wish to lessen the public conflict over wolves, rather than by science.
Powerful ranching interests in Montana and Idaho opposed reintroduction of wolves to the region some 15 years ago and have continued to resist federal protection of the animals as a threat to livestock. Sportsmen complain that wolves are killing too many big-game animals, such as elk.
But in the decision handed down on Saturday, Molloy said that to reverse his August 2010 decision would be tantamount to sanctioning an illegal action.
Molloy ruled then that the government erred in lifting federal protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana while leaving them intact for wolves in neighboring Wyoming. He agreed with conservationists that the wolves in all three states were part of a single population that could not be treated separately under the Endangered Species Act.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has left Wyoming and its estimated 500 wolves out of its de-listing proposals because that state's management plan would generally have allowed wolves to be shot on sight, as opposed to the licensed-hunting regimens planned by Idaho and Montana.
Despite Molloy's latest ruling, the outcome of wolf protections in the Northern Rockies remained unclear.
Amendments tacked on to budget bills that Congress is expected to vote on next week would accomplish through legislation what the proposed settlement Molloy rejected would have done through the courts, according to a statement posted online by U.S. Sen. John Tester, a Montana Democrat.
If the budget rider is enacted it would be the first time that an animal has been removed from the Endangered Species List by an act of Congress.
In yet another wrinkle, Idaho's Republican governor is considering signing into law a measure that declares the estimated 700 wolves in the state a "disaster emergency." The measure would allow him to marshal state and local law enforcement to kill wolves.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and David Bailey)