Gray wolf hunting will begin in the Northern Rockies as a federal judge considers an injunction request by environmental and animal welfare groups to stop the predators from being killed.
Hunters in Idaho, where up to 220 wolves could be killed, are poised to head into the field Tuesday. Montana's season is set to begin Sept. 15, with a quota of 75 wolves.
After a three-hour hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy gave no indication how he might rule on the request. Molloy said he would decide "as quickly as I can."
State wildlife officials said the hunts would proceed pending the ruling.
Wolves once roamed North America but by the 1930s had been largely exterminated outside Alaska and Canada. An estimated 1,650 of the animals now live in the Northern Rockies — the result of a contentious $30 million reintroduction program that began in 1995.
Today, the debate centers on whether that population will remain viable if hunting is allowed. That population is now five times the original recovery goal set in the 1990s.
Wolves were removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana in May, and management of the animals was transferred to the state wildlife agencies. About 300 wolves remain on the list in Wyoming due largely to a state law allowing them to be shot-on-sight across 90 percent of the state.
About 4,000 hunters in Idaho already have bought tags allowing them to kill a wolf. Tags went on sale Monday in Montana.
Missoula hunter Mac McLaughlin, who attended Monday's hearing, said he was going directly to a sporting goods shop to purchase his tag because he's tired of the predators attacking elk. McLaughlin said he would use an elk call to lure in wolves, but he rated his chances of success as poor.
"If the opportunity comes up, you bet I'll shoot one," he said. "There's got to be a balance and our game populations have taken a terrible beating.
In arguing to stop the Idaho and Montana hunts, Doug Honnold with the environmental law firm Earthjustice said wolves remained at risk. The government had twisted the Endangered Species Act to suit its own purposes, and there were insufficient safeguards to ensure the gray wolf's survival under state jurisdiction, he said.
"It's the endangered species that need to be protected, not the states' rights to kill wolves," Honnold said.
Michael Eitel, representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency would continue to monitor the population and step in to return the animal to the endangered list if warranted.
"The Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are doing very well," he said. "Yes there might be wolves that are killed, but that will not affect the population in Idaho and Montana."
By carving out Wyoming when it decided to remove wolves from the endangered list, the government had "flip-flopped" on a prior policy against making endangered species decisions based on political boundaries, Honnold said.
Eitel acknowledged his agency changed its position on the issue, but urged Judge Molloy to accept its latest interpretation of the law.
Molloy appeared doubtful. "How am I supposed to make judgment as to which of their positions to give deference to?" he asked.