By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Four environmental groups on Tuesday asked a court for permission to defend California's decision to grant endangered species protections to the gray wolf, the latest in an ongoing fight over the predator's future in the Western United States.
The groups are seeking to be added as defendants along with the state to a legal challenge to the designation filed on behalf of farmers and ranchers, who worry that a resurgent wolf population will endanger people and livestock.
"We chose to file a motion to intervene because we felt it was very, very important that the science and law that supported listing the species be upheld," said Amaroq Weiss, the West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of four conservation groups seeking to join the lawsuit.
After being hunted nearly to extinction, wolves have made enough of a comeback in the Western states that in some, including Montana and Idaho, they are no longer protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Wyoming ruled that wolves in Wyoming should be stripped of Endangered Species Act protections and management given to the state rather than the U.S. government, a decision that opened the door for hunting of the animals.
Wolves are rarely spotted in California. The confirmation that two had migrated into Lassen County in the northern part of the state last summer merited a press release from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Environmentalists argue that gray wolves deserve protection because of the paucity of their numbers in California.
But Damien Schiff, lead attorney on the case for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative-leaning law firm representing the California Cattlemen's Association and the California Farm Bureau Federation, said that if wolves do not actually live in the state, they should not be considered eligible for state-level protections.
Moreover, he said, officials should consider the wolves' success in nearby states as evidence that they are not endangered, rather than just looking at the population in California.
Wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the Lower 48 states before coming under federal protections in the 1970s. They were re-introduced to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s.
A decision on the environmental groups' request to join the case, filed in a state appeals court in San Diego, is expected in coming weeks, Weiss said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Leslie Adler)