By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A federal court rejected a bid by conservationists for an immediate halt to wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana on Tuesday, but the judges said they would reconsider the request next month.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others had asked the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency injunction on wolf hunts pending an appeal that seeks to restore Endangered Species Act protections to wolves in the two states.
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. Conservationists said 200 wolves have already been killed this year in those states from a population estimated at between 1,300 and 1,600.
The conservationists had argued a stay was urgently needed because the states had sold nearly 37,000 permits for wolf hunts that allow high-powered rifles equipped with long-range scopes.
In an order denying the injunction, the court said it would take up the question of suspending wolf hunts next month during arguments in the appeal.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced fewer than 100 wolves to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s 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 states say wolves are now thriving and should be hunted like other wildlife, and Congress in April approved a measure removing wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species in Idaho and Montana.
Conservationists are appealing an August decision by a federal judge that upheld that delisting. It was the first time an animal had been stripped of federal safeguards by congressional action rather than scientific review.
Wild Rockies Alliance head Michael Garrity said on Tuesday he was "cautiously optimistic" about the upcoming court hearing.
"But, unfortunately, this means wolves will be hunted and trapped in Idaho and hunted in Montana for at least another three weeks," he said.
Jon Hanian, spokesman for Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, had said in an e-mail on Monday that Idaho had a well-established track record of successfully managing big-game predators like mountain lions.
"Idaho's plan for wolf management is just as responsible," he said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)