On Tuesday, lawyers for the U.S. government and a coalition of wildlife advocates filed their answers with U.S. District Judge Don Molloy in Missoula.
The states want to use a part of the federal Endangered Species Act called the 10(j) rule for permission to cull the wolves. The rule gives the agency flexibility to kill endangered species when they threaten livestock or big game, although it does not allow public hunting.
The lawsuit started in 2008, when Earthjustice attorneys challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's claim that wolves in southern Montana and Idaho were part of a transplanted, "experimental/non-essential" population that could be managed under the 10(j) rule.
Molloy put the case on hold while he presided over the bigger question of whether the Fish and Wildlife Service properly delisted wolves from the ESA. Last August, he ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service erred when it delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho but not Wyoming, saying the ESA didn't allow managing a wide-ranging population differently by state line.
The ruling canceled planned public hunts in Montana and Idaho last fall. Both states then asked for 10(j) hunts, and Molloy returned to the Earthjustice lawsuit. In January, he asked both sides if the transplanted wolves were still experimental/non-essential or fully threatened.
"(T)o what extent is the experimental status threatened if multiple dispersing wolves breed with the experimental population?" Molloy asked the two sides. In the delisting lawsuit, government lawyers argued that transplanted wolves were mingling with the naturally occurring populations of northern Montana and Idaho, which are fully protected. The total population is now estimated to be more than 1,700 wolves in the three-state area.