By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court refused on Thursday to block wolf hunts planned in Idaho and Montana while conservation groups press a legal case against an unprecedented act of Congress that lifted federal protection of the animals.
More than 1,500 wolves in Idaho and Montana were removed from the U.S. endangered species list, giving the two states largely unfettered control over the animals, in legislation attached to a stopgap budget bill Congress approved in April.
The delisting came amid a legal battle between environmentalists and the government over whether wolves, which were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction decades ago, had successfully recovered in the Northern Rockies.
Environmental groups sought to overturn the congressional action, which marked the first time an animal has been delisted through legislation rather than a process of scientific review established under the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists argued that Congress overstepped its authority in doing so.
A federal judge earlier this month sided with the Obama administration, which argued Congress had the authority to carve out an exception to the Endangered Species Act for a particular animal, like the gray wolf.
WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others sought to restore federal safeguards to wolves by petitioning the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On August 13, those groups asked the court to stay wolf hunting and trapping planned in Idaho and Montana until the case was decided on its merits.
Idaho plans to reduce its wolf population from about 1,000 to no fewer than 150 in a hunting seasons that open on Tuesday and by trapping. Montana has set a hunting quota of 220 wolves out of a population of 566 in a season that starts in September.
In denying environmentalists' request to temporarily halt the hunts, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit agreed with the administration -- joined by the two states and hunting and farm groups -- that the hunts would not jeopardize recovery of the iconic animal.
"We are discouraged we didn't win a stay of execution for wolves, but we are cautiously optimistic that we will win our lawsuit to protect wolves from future persecution," John Horning, WildEarth Guardians executive director, said in a statement.
The 9th Circuit has set an expedited hearing date in November for the case.
Wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s over the objections of ranchers and hunters. They blame wolves for preying on livestock and reducing herds of big-game animals like elk.
Wolves killed 148 cows in Idaho in 2010 out of the state's 2.2 million head of cattle, according to government figures. A recent survey by Idaho wildlife managers shows elk populations exceed or meet biologists' objectives in the vast majority of the state's hunting areas.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)