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The lawyers seeking to keep Montana wolves under Endangered Species Act protection have chastised Gov. Brian Schweitzer for suggesting people violate the federal law.

"In your Feb. 16, 2011 letter to the Secretary of the Interior, and in numerous follow-up interviews with local and national media outlets, you suggested that Montana did not intend to follow federal law, nor honor its commitments under either Montana's wolf management plan or its memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with respect to wolf management," Earthjustice attorneys Doug Honnold and Jenny Harbine wrote to Schweitzer.

"More troubling, your statements may incite Montanans to violate the Endangered Species Act," they continued. "Wolves are still protected under that act. ... Nowhere is it permissible for individuals to kill wolves in a response to an alleged threat to elk herds."

Last week, Schweitzer followed the lead of Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in ordering Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to stop investigating wolf livestock attacks. He also encouraged ranchers in northern Montana to defend their animals from wolves. Federal law has stricter protections for northern wolves, which naturally colonized the area from Canada than for descendants of a transplanted population in the southern half of the state.

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Earthjustice is the law firm representing a coalition of environmental and conservation groups that sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its plan to turn wolves over to state management in Montana and Idaho but not in Wyoming. U.S. District Judge Don Molloy overturned the FWS plan last August, ruling it was illegal to manage a large population of free-roaming wolves differently in different states. That decision has been appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Schweitzer also called for faster action on a state request to have game wardens kill wolves along the Montana-Idaho border where elk herds are declining. Although Honnold and Harbine warned such actions would jeopardize the state's relationship with the Fish and Wildlife Service, FWS spokesman Chris Tollefson said last week the state's application for the hunt is still in progress.

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