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(Reuters) - A judge on Friday put the brakes on the start of trapping season in Montana for wolverines - ferocious but rare members of the weasel family - until at least the outcome of a hearing early next year on whether a longer-term moratorium should be imposed.
Conservationists filed suit in October seeking to end trapping and snaring of wolverines in the only one of the lower 48 states that permits licensed harvesting of the elusive carnivore, estimated to number fewer than 300 in the Northern Rockies and Cascades.
The temporary restraining order issued by the Montana judge presiding over the case came one day before the state's wolverine season was set to open.
The animals are prized for their fur.
Montana game officials have argued that the number of wolverine harvests permitted is small - just five statewide per season. But conservation groups counter that any deliberate killing further imperils an animal whose sharp decline has made it a candidate for endangered species protection.
The two sides are due to square off in court in January at a hearing to decide whether a preliminary injunction against future trapping is warranted until the case is settled or decided on its merits.
In his ruling on Friday, state District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock said evidence that wolverine numbers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming may be much lower than estimated was pitted against a trapping season established for sport.
"Balancing the loss of a 'recreational harvest opportunity' against the possible damage to a potentially endangered species, the court finds the equities lie in favor of issuing a temporary restraining order," he wrote.
Conservationists said they were grateful for the reprieve for animals already challenged by a reduction in the mountain snows they rely on for dens and food storage.
"Wolverines aren't going to start to be killed tomorrow," Michael Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said on Friday. "For the species to recover, we need as many as possible to survive."
In the lawsuit, conservationists argued wolverine trapping was a violation of Montana's policy of maintaining or restoring populations of rare animals.
Ken McDonald, wildlife bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the state's quota was based on sound science that does not put the wolverine population at risk.
"Our management is conservative, sustainable and reasonable," he said in a statement.
Wolverines, solitary creatures known for their voracious appetites and grouchy dispositions, were in 2010 considered for endangered species protections because of threats posed by a warming climate in the West.
A final decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether wolverines will gain endangered or threatened status is expected in coming months.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Todd Eastham