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Ten conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are asking a federal judge Thursday to approve their plan to lift endangered species protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, effectively reversing his previous rulings on the matter.
But it's unclear whether U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy will approve their proposal after he rejected arguments last summer to remove federal protections in those two states but allow them to remain in Wyoming, which has a wolf management plan considered hostile to survival of the species.
Molloy ruled then that decisions on the Endangered Species Act should be based on science and not on political boundaries, such as state lines.
The proposed deal asks Molloy to effectively reverse that ruling. It also provides assurances that wolves will not be hunted to extinction and requires the Department of Interior to review the animal's status within four years of the deal's enactment.
Montana and Idaho would take over management of wolves within their borders, allowing the states to reinstitute hunts that were halted after one season.
Several of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit disagree with the settlement and have splintered from the other conservation groups.
Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance of the Wild Rockies, said he believes the settlement is politically motivated, based in part on bills moving through Congress to lift wolf protections. Nothing has changed since the lawsuit was filed to make the group believe the time is right for a settlement, he said.
Molloy's ruling in favor of the plaintiffs should be left intact, he said Thursday.
"I think he made a great ruling and they are basically asking him to reverse it and admit he was wrong," Garrity said.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs, the state and federal governments involved and the splinter groups such as Garrity's say they plan to present their arguments for and against the settlement to Molloy on Thursday in Missoula.
If Molloy signs off on the settlement, it still must be approved by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Montana officials have endorsed the settlement while Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has decided against taking a formal stance.
There are now more than 1,650 wolves in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of Oregon and Washington state since they were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in the 1990s. The settlement would keep endangered species protections for the smaller populations in Oregon and Washington and any wolves that migrate to Utah.
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