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Wolf advocates have opted not to appeal a federal court decision that let wolf hunting seasons go forward in Montana and Idaho.

"We're anxious to get to the merits of our case," said EarthJustice lead attorney Doug Honnold on Monday. His law firm represents 14 environmental and conservation groups that want the gray wolf returned to federal endangered species list protection. "The best way to do that is to speed up the merits process than have an appeal ongoing at the same time."

Montana's gray wolf season begins at sunrise Tuesday in three hunting districts deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, plus one more in the Beartooth Wilderness around Cooke City.

The regulations allow 41 wolves to be taken in Management Unit 1, which covers most of the northern half of the state (and all of the Bob Marshall). Management Unit 3 includes the rest of the state (and the Beartooths) and has a quota of 12 wolves.

The remainder, Management Unit 2, is Montana's southwest tip bounded by Interstate highways 90 and 15. That area has a quota of 22 wolves, but is not open for hunting until the regular big-game season starts Oct. 25.

Wolf hunting began in Idaho on Sept. 1, and four wolves have been killed there so far. Idaho opens two more hunting districts Tuesday, with the bulk of that state open for wolf hunting Oct. 1. It has a statewide quota of 220 wolves.

Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and one of the EarthJustice clients, said focusing on the main court case might get a decision while the hunts are still in progress.

"We are concerned about the effect on wolves of hunts that do not conclude in Idaho until March 31, 2010," Garrity said, "We hope this will help the judge to reach a decision as soon as possible."

The groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April over its decision to delist gray wolves in Montana and Idaho, but not in Wyoming. EarthJustice argued that delisting shouldn't occur until Wyoming also has an acceptable wolf management plan, because the region's wolf population travels across all three states.

It also asked the court to block wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana until the larger case could be heard.

On Sept. 8, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula ruled that the wolf hunts wouldn't cause irreparable harm to the region's wolf population. He allowed the hunts to go forward, but added that EarthJustice was likely to win the larger case.

Molloy has not yet set a schedule for briefings or hearings on the main lawsuit.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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