SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Conservation groups asked an appeals court on Monday to strike down a move by Congress to strip more than 1,500 wolves in Idaho and Montana of federal endangered species protections.
In a petition to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the groups sought to overturn a ruling last week by a federal judge that found Congress did not exceed its authority in April when it allowed a measure removing wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana.
That ruling, by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, came days after Idaho announced plans to cut its wolf population from about 1,000 to no fewer than 150 by extensive hunting and trapping and less than a month after Montana set a wolf hunting quota of 220 out of a population of 566.
“The states want to decimate the wolf population in the Northern Rockies,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “We want to stop this massive killing that is about to occur.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the mid-1990s reintroduced fewer than 100 wolves to the region after hunting, trapping and poisoning programs had pushed western wolves nearly to extinction.
The Department of Interior, which oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, had no immediate comment on the appeal.
As wolf numbers climbed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, those states have argued in recent years the animals no longer needed Endangered Species Act protections to survive. The federal government agreed, but plans to delist wolves were blocked by conservationists’ lawsuits.
Wolves were most recently delisted in Idaho and Montana in 2009 when the Fish and Wildlife Service approved wolf management plans by those two states but rejected one in Wyoming, where it was legal to kill most wolves.
Environmentalists sued, arguing Northern Rockies wolves were part of a single population and could not be delisted in Idaho and Montana while remaining protected in Wyoming.
In August, Molloy sided with conservationists, and federal protections were restored to wolves in Idaho and Montana.
Outrage over that decision prompted lawmakers from Western states to attach a provision delisting wolves in the two states to a stopgap budget bill that Congress passed in April.
Conservationists again sued, this time claiming Congress violated the constitutional separation of powers among branches of government by intervening in an ongoing legal dispute.
Government attorneys successfully argued that Congress, within its powers, had effectively amended the Endangered Species Act, something lawmakers like Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho and U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana strongly denied at the time.
It was the first time an animal had been delisted by a political process rather than scientific review.
In his ruling upholding the congressional action, Molloy said it represented “a tearing away, an undermining, and a disrespect for the fundamental idea of the rule of law.”
But he said his hands were tied by a prior Ninth Circuit decision which found Congress did not overstep its bounds when it amended law by implication rather than legislation.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston