A federal court judge in Missoula will hear oral arguments on June 15 on whether gray wolves in Montana and Idaho should be removed from the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy filed the paperwork Friday notifying lawyers on both sides of the case to come before him and answer questions or reiterate their arguments before he decides if wolves should be delisted.

“This is just a hearing on the merits of the case,” said Jenny Harbine, an associate attorney with Earthjustice in Bozeman. “He’ll give the plaintiffs and the federal government an equal amount of time to make their case, then maybe a little less for the states and other organizations.

“Generally they just reiterate the briefs, but if there is new information that’s proper to come before the court, then that comes in. But usually it’s just an opportunity to answer the judge’s questions about the briefs that have been filed.”

Molloy is not expected to rule from the bench, she added. Instead, he’ll probably take the issues under consideration before making a decision, as he has in the past.

The crux of the lawsuit, which Earthjustice filed on behalf of 13 conservation and environmental groups, is whether wolves can be delisted in Montana and Idaho, yet remain protected in Wyoming. The federal government had included all three states in its initial delisting attempt, but the conservation groups sued and Molloy ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily because officials of a lack of evidence regarding genetic diversity.

The government withdrew the delisting decision, but reissued it later including only Montana and Idaho, leading to the current lawsuit. Wolves remain protected in Wyoming because the state’s management plan classified them as predators that could be shot on sight throughout most of the state, which the federal government decided didn’t afford them enough protection to keep the population intact.

Montana and Idaho have weighed in on the lawsuit on behalf of the federal government, as has the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, the Montana and Idaho farm bureaus, and the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Plaintiffs include Defenders of Wildlife, Northern Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Project and Hell’s Canyon Preservation Council.

Tens of thousands of gray wolves once roamed North America but were trapped, poisoned and shot until near extinction in the United States. They were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and reintroduction efforts began in 1994.

Today, at least 1,700 wolves are scattered about five western states, including 525 in Montana; 843 in Idaho; 320 in Wyoming; 14 in eastern Oregon; and five in eastern Washington. That’s an increase of 150 wolves, despite the first-ever hunting season that removed 206 in Montana and Idaho and federal wildlife agents killing another 270 problem wolves.

Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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