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SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Permits for planned wolf hunts sold briskly in Idaho on Thursday, as most wolves in the Northern Rockies were officially removed from the endangered species list and conservationists sued over the unprecedented removal of protection by Congress.
The end of federal protection means that the roughly 1,200 wolves in Idaho and Montana will be managed by state wildlife agencies. The two states are seeking to kill hundreds of wolves, mostly through public hunting to begin in the fall.
Hunters were lining up in Idaho to purchase "tags" priced at $11.95 to help fill a hunting quota expected to be set at 220 of the state's 700 wolves. Montana is likely to set the same quota for its 550 wolves.
Dozens sought tags at a sporting goods store near a hunting area in north central Idaho where wildlife agents in coming days intend to conduct aerial hunting campaigns against wolves preying on elk herds.
Rhonda Stockton, bookkeeper for Rae Brothers in Grangeville, said the outdoor sports retailer expects a rush on wolf tags.
"We're going to be selling quite a few; most people want wolves out of here," she said.
The federal government on Thursday delisted wolves in Idaho and Montana as well as fledging populations in Oregon, Washington and Utah.
The move came after Congress ordered the delisting -- and banned intervention by courts -- in a provision tucked into a federal budget bill approved on April 14.
It was the first time in the decades-long history of the Endangered Species Act that an animal was delisted by legislation rather than by scientific review.
That followed a federal court ruling in August that upheld conservationists' legal challenges to the government's 2009 delisting of wolves in Idaho and Montana and returned those populations to the endangered species list.
On Thursday, conservation groups filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Montana, seeking to restore federal safeguards to wolves.
The groups claim Congress overstepped its bounds and violated the constitutional separation of powers by intervening in the ongoing legal case and by exempting the delisting provision from judicial review.
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, called the congressional provision a "terrible precedent."
"It opens the door for any political who doesn't like an endangered species asking Congress to delist it," he said.
Wolves in the West have been blamed for preying on livestock and big game animals, provoking outcries from the region's powerful ranching and sporting constituencies.
Environmentalists say that wolves will be subject to wholesale killing in the absence of federal protections.
Speaking to reporters by telephone on Wednesday, Virgil Moore, head of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, sought to dispel fears that Idaho would decimate the wolves.
"Whether you agree with how they got here or why they got here, they are now wards of the state," he said.
Moore said a plan is under way to use aerial gunners, trapping or snaring to kill off 60 of 80 wolves blamed for excess elk deaths in a popular hunting area near Grangeville.
Wolves were reintroduced to the wilds of Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s after systematic hunting, trapping and poisoning pushed them to near extinction.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune