A proposal to settle years of litigation and allow public hunting of wolves in parts of the Northern Rockies faces its first legal test on Thursday, as it goes before a federal judge who has twice rebuffed attempts to lift protections for the predators.
The hearing before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula follows a settlement agreement last week between the Obama administration and 10 conservation groups.
Facing pressure from Western lawmakers in Congress, the groups agreed to give up their fight to keep almost 1,300 wolves on the endangered list in Idaho and Montana. In exchange, the government would retain protections at least temporarily for about 400 wolves in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and Utah.
Molloy has rejected past government decisions on wolves that he said were politically motivated. He is being asked to do so again by several wildlife advocacy groups that refused to sign off on the settlement with the administration.
An attorney for one of the dissenting groups referred to the deal as "political theater" that would scuttle prior legal victories by wolf advocates.
"The settling plaintiffs would give up their right to challenge any new delisting rule for five years - during which time untold numbers of wolves could be unnecessarily and unlawfully killed," attorney Summer Nelson wrote in a brief filed by the Western Watersheds Project.
Bounty hunting and poisonings killed off wolves throughout most of the continental U.S. early last century.
A fledgling population in Montana expanded dramatically beginning in the mid-1990s, when the federal government brought in 66 of the animals from Canada and reintroduced them to central Idaho and northwestern Wyoming.
The population has leveled off in recent years, in part because government wildlife agents now kill more than 200 wolves annually in response to attacks on livestock.
Biologists this year recorded the first drop since restoration efforts began. Declines in some of the region's big game herds and continued livestock attacks have spurred calls to further reduce the population.
Supporters of the settlement said they want to get past two decades of legal battles over wolves in the West. At the same time, they are trying to pre-empt wolf legislation before Congress that could have broader implications for other plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"It should give everybody in the region who's dealing with wolves a way to think about them long-term. It's all been so haphazard up until now," said Mike Clark with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, one of the 10 groups involved in the settlement.
For the deal to go forward, Molloy must agree to suspend a ruling last August in which the judge faulted the Fish and Wildlife Service for a 2009 decision that took wolves off the endangered list in Montana and Idaho but not neighboring Wyoming.
Wyoming has a law that allows wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state. Federal wildlife officials said that Montana and Idaho had acceptable wolf management plans, but Wyoming's was too hostile to the species to ensure its continued survival.
Molloy said the recovery of wolves across the region was incomplete if they remained in danger in Wyoming. He said federal wildlife laws do not allow for recovery decisions to be based on political boundaries.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks attorney Robert Lane said Molloy may be willing to reconsider given the settlement's assurances that wolves would not be hunted to extermination.
As part of the agreement with the Obama administration, the Department of Interior would conduct an independent review of the animal's status within four years. In the meantime, Idaho and Montana could resume hunts for the animals that were suspended after just one season.
"It's sort of like a test drive for state management" of wolves, Lane said of the settlement.
If Molloy agrees to let the settlement go forward, it also must clear the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the federal government has been pursuing an appeal of Molloy's August order.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the region have vowed to keep pressing their bills to delist wolves at least until the settlement is finalized.
Some of those measures would go much further than last week's settlement and delist wolves nationwide. That would include wolves in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, where only a few dozen of the animals survive despite a costly government restoration program.