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A rift among plaintiffs over whether to settle the federal court lawsuit filed to try to keep the gray wolf listed as an endangered species has prompted their attorneys to remove themselves from the case.

Doug Honnold, an attorney with Earthjustice in Bozeman, filed a motion Wednesday saying his firm has an “ethical obligation to terminate their legal representation” in the controversial case. He declined to comment on Thursday on the reason for the move, other than to say he regrets not being able to continue to represent the plaintiffs.

“I wish I could talk about it, but the motion speaks for itself and we have to withdraw,” Honnold said on Thursday.

An ethics opinion he sought from the Montana State Bar notes that a “global settlement has been proposed,” and that some of the clients desire to accept it while others do not. The bar’s ethics subcommittee wrote in the informal opinion that “conflicts between the lawyer’s clients over their disparate settlement positions may create a conflict of interest that could require the withdrawal of counsel.”

The subcommittee’s opinion adds that the federal district court retains discretion to refuse to permit the lawyers to withdraw, or to impose conditions on the withdrawal request.

Ten of the groups that brought the lawsuit against the Department of Interior — including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife — want to settle the dispute over whether wolves in the northern Rockies should be taken off the list of animals under federal protection. Three other plaintiffs — the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Western Watersheds and the Friends of the Clearwater — argue that U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy has already ruled in their favor, and there’s no reason for them to back down now.

Mike Garrity, the Alliance’s executive director, said he believes the other groups are going to ask Molloy to “stay” his Aug. 5, 2010, decision, which would then allow wolves to be delisted in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah, while remaining an endangered species in Wyoming. Molloy had ruled that they can’t be delisted in Montana and Idaho but remain on the list in adjoining states.

“We all sued and won, and now I believe they’re going to go back and ask Judge Molloy to stay his ruling that put them back on the endangered species list,” Garrity said. “We didn’t go to court for entertainment purposes. We take this seriously and we don’t think it would be right or respectful to the court to go back and say we changed our minds.

“I believe they first were going to ask him to vacate his ruling, which means he would say the way he ruled was wrong. But since we split up, I believe they’re going to ask the court to stay his ruling.”

The reason for seeking the settlement, according to representatives from some of the organizations, is they fear that legislation introduced in Congress to delist wolves in the northern Rockies would set a precedent for political action on other listed species.

“There’s definitely a real concern about legislation being a bad road to go down,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that is involved in the settlement talks. “It’s never happened before, having politicians making scientific decisions on which species need protection. It sets a bad precedent.”

He added that another issue of concern with some of the recently proposed legislation is that it would delist wolves in Oregon, Washington and Utah, where they have either transient or fledgling populations. Of those three states, only Oregon has a wolf management plan, and it hasn’t been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, unlike Montana and Idaho’s plans.

“That’s always been a concern,” Greenwald said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Under the settlement, wolves could remain listed in Oregon, Washington, Utah and Wyoming.

Other groups involved in the settlement discussions with the Department of Interior include the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, Wildlands Network and Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Garrity adds that those opposing the settlement believe anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 wolves are needed on the landscape to ensure biological diversity, and that includes having stable wolf populations in states like Oregon, Washington and Utah. To him, that’s another reason why both the potential settlement and some of the proposed legislation that delists them in those states without protection is bad.

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At last count, at least 1,651 gray wolves were counted in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. Montana is home to 566 wolves, Idaho has 705 and Wyoming has 343.

Wolves once were prolific throughout the Northern Rockies, but were trapped, poisoned and shot to near extinction by the early 1900s. Wolves were listed as an endangered species in 1974 and reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1994.

“We want them to be recovered and removed from the Endangered Species list, once they’ve reached population levels supported by science,” Garrity said. “To get to those numbers, they have to be spread throughout the states.”

Along with his request to withdraw Earthjustice from the lawsuit, Honnold asked Molloy for a continuance of the previously scheduled March 24 hearing, saying the plaintiff’s new attorneys needed time to prepare.

Molloy denied that request on Thursday, saying that the new counsel hadn’t represented the need.

“It is further noted that the parties have fully briefed the issues, and the Court can decide the issues on the current record,” Molloy wrote. “Continuing the hearing creates conflicts for many parties in the case.”

But he added that “if good cause to continue the hearing exists,” the plaintiff’s counsel can renew the motion by 4 p.m. today.

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

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