BILLINGS - With more than 150 wolves shot in the Northern Rockies so far this fall, a panel of federal judges on Tuesday is scheduled to consider an emergency halt to public hunts for the animals.
Congress cleared the way for the hunts last spring, when lawmakers took the unprecedented step of stripping Endangered Species Act protections from more than 1,300 wolves in Montana and Idaho.
Wildlife advocates sued to reverse the move and want the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to suspend the hunt while the case is pending. They claim Congress violated the Constitution's separation of powers mandate by reversing prior court rulings that kept protections in place.
Montana set a 220-wolf quota for its hunt. Idaho's hunt has no cap.
Prior requests for an emergency injunction to halt the hunts were denied. Now, more than two months after the states' wolf seasons began, advocates will get the chance to make their case Tuesday before a three-judge panel. They said the killing is removing animals that are valuable to science and beloved by wolf watchers.
"They get a bad rap - they're the big, bad wolves," said Dave Hornoff with the National Wolfwatcher Coalition. "But you see them with their pups, you watch them raise their pups and the pups grow up. You become very attached. Dying in this manner (hunting) is very hard to accept. It's disheartening."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is monitoring the hunts, but agency officials said they have no plans to intervene because wolves have recovered in the region.
State officials said they need to curb the predator's population to prevent attacks on livestock and big game herds.
Montana's quota was set with the goal of reducing wolf numbers by 25 percent compared with last year, to 425 animals.
Idaho officials have said only that they plan to maintain at least 150 wolves, out of a current population of at least 700 animals.
If wolf numbers drop below 100 animals in either state, federal officials would step in to restore endangered species protections. That safety valve undercuts the plaintiff's contention that the hunts could cause irreparable harm, attorneys for the government contended in court documents filed in advance of the hearing.
The attorneys wrote that an injunction would be an extraordinary step for the court to take and that the plaintiffs "come nowhere close to meeting the test."
They also argued that Congress was within its bounds to act on the issue, because lawmakers had been informed by government scientists that wolves were biologically recovered.
"Congress had the right to make that policy choice," Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno wrote. He added that the plaintiffs' separation of powers argument was flawed. Moreno also cited prior court opinions that called for a "high degree of judicial tolerance" when Congress intervenes in a matter subject to litigation.
Sporting and gun rights groups including the National Rifle Association and Safari Club have intervened in the case on the side of the federal government.