by Jennifer McKee of the Missoulian State Bureau
HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Tuesday he’ll be disappointed if a federal judge stops Montana’s first-ever wolf hunting season – and hinted the state may sue to keep the hunt on.
“If some old judge says we can’t (hunt wolves), we’ll take it back to another judge,” Schweitzer said at an event highlighting the upcoming hunting season.
Some 15 years after they were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, wolves now number about 500 in Montana, said Joe Maurier, director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The number of wolves in Montana grows by about 20 percent a year, Maurier said.
Wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have reached the population threshold and other milestones federal officials set as requirements to remove wolves from the federal endangered species list.
They are off the endangered list in Montana and Idaho, and management of the predator now lies with the states. They are still considered endangered in Wyoming until that state can formulate a management plan that passes federal muster.
Both Montana and Idaho have planned wolf hunts this fall, beginning in September.
But a coalition of 13 environmental groups has asked U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula to stop the hunts and put wolves back on the endangered species list.
A hearing in the matter is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 31 – the same day wolf tags go on sale in Montana and the day before Idaho’s hunting season begins.
The groups have argued that hunting wolves, in addition to the wolves lost every year to other causes, would result in “irreparable injury” to the animal’s recovery.
The lawsuit coalition includes the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Montana’s wolf season calls for a harvest of 75 animals. Licenses cost $19 for in-state hunters. A limited wolf hunt will kick off Sept. 15 and be statewide on Oct. 25. The season ends Nov. 29.
Maurier encouraged would-be wolf hunters to wait a bit before buying their tags. The state has plans to refund hunters’ money if the hunt is canceled, but Maurier said it might be easier to take a wait-and-see approach.
Schweitzer said Montana has already proved it can successfully manage wolves. Hunting, he said, is necessary to manage the numbers.
“No one is talking about hunting them into extinction,” he said in an interview after Tuesday’s event.
Montana followed all the federal rules in managing wolves, he said, and the animals have rebounded here. The state now enjoys the right to manage the animals.
“And then for a federal judge to come in and undo all of that?” he said. “I don’t know why states would make any kind of a deal with the federal government again.”
Maurier initially told reporters he was not optimistic Molloy would allow Montana to go ahead with the hunt. Later, he said no one could predict what a judge might do.