SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The U.S. government said on Friday it had struck a deal with wildlife advocates to remove some 1,200 wolves in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list.
Federal protections could be lifted from the wolves if a federal judge signs off on a settlement agreement filed on Friday in U.S. District Court in Montana.
The wildlife groups had sued to keep roughly 1,600 wolves in the Northern Rockies on the endangered species list.
Under the proposed agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 10 conservation groups, the estimated 1,200 wolves in Idaho and Montana would be delisted and management of the animals, including target population numbers and hunting quotas, would be handed back to those states.
The government in 2009 approved wolf-management plans by Idaho and Montana and removed federal protections in those states, which established public hunts.
But the Fish and Wildlife Service declined delisting in Wyoming because its plan would have allowed most wolves to be shot on sight.
A U.S. District Court ruling in 2010 relisted wolves in Idaho and Montana. The federal judge in the case sided with 14 conservation groups, which had argued wolves in the Northern Rockies were part of a single population and that protections could not be left intact in Wyoming while they were lifted in the other two states.
Ten of the 14 conservation groups behind that legal action are now seeking to settle with the Fish and Wildlife Service, opening the way for licensed hunting in Idaho and Montana.
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer on Friday hailed the move, calling it “a significant step forward.”
“We need the authority to respond to the challenges wolves present every day,” he said in a statement.
But it is by no means clear if the proposed agreement - even if the federal judge approves it - will give Montana and Idaho that authority.
Four of the 14 conservation groups have not agreed to settle, which could mean more legal filings to come.
Wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the Northern Rockies before being added to the endangered species list.
Federal protection of wolves has been especially controversial since they were reintroduced to the wilds of central Idaho in the mid-1990s over the strong objections of ranchers and hunting outfitters, two powerful constituencies in the West.
Wolf foes say the animals are a constant threat to livestock and to big-game animals like elk.
Mike Clark, head of Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said that conservation group and nine others hope the settlement will provide relief in a region where anti-wolf sentiments have been running high.
“It’s a way for people to accept that wolves are here to stay and to find a permanent way to manage them,” he said.
The proposed agreement comes as a host of U.S. senators and representatives from Western states have pushed to delist wolves through congressional action, which would be unprecedented in the history of the Endangered Species Act.
Idaho officials said they were still reviewing the legal filings and would not be prepared to comment until next week.
Representatives of the four conservation groups that have not signed onto the settlement could not immediately be reached for comment.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune