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HELENA, Mont. -- A federal judge on Thursday reinstated Endangered Species Act protection for wolves in Montana and Idaho, saying the government made a political decision in removing the protection from just two of the three states where Rocky Mountain wolves roam.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy said in his ruling that the entire Rocky Mountain wolf population, including the animals in Wyoming, either must be listed as an endangered species or removed from the list. Protections for the same population can't be different for each state, he said.

Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned over wolf management to Montana and Idaho wildlife officials but left federal endangered species protection in place for wolves in Wyoming, where state law is considered hostile to the animals' survival.

"Even if the Service's solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at its heart a political solution that does not comply with the ESA," Molloy wrote in his ruling.

Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other wildlife advocates sued the federal government after the Fish and Wildlife Service decision in April 2009. They argued that the government's decision would have set a precedent allowing the government to arbitrarily choose which animals should be protected and where.

The decision puts a halt to wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho planned for this fall. Montana wildlife regulators last month set the wolf-hunt quota at 186, more than doubling last year's number, with the aim of reducing the state's wolf population.

Wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, but following a reintroduction program in the mid-1990s, there are now more than 1,700 in the Northern Rockies.

Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Montana has done everything it's been asked to do in developing its state management program but now will have to apply federal law and regulations once more.

"This puts a spotlight on Wyoming and seeing what can be done with Wyoming," Sime said.

In a prepared statement, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland praised the "strong commitments from" Idaho and Montana "to manage gray wolves in a sustainable manner." But, he said, Molloy's ruling "makes it clear this wolf population cannot be delisted until the state of Wyoming has instituted an adequate management program, similar to those of Idaho and Montana."

"... (U)ntil Wyoming brings its wolf management program into alignment with those of Idaho and Montana, the wolf will remain under the protection of the Endangered Species Act throughout the northern Rocky Mountains," Strickland said.

Wyoming's wolf plan provides for some protection of wolves in the state's northwest corner but none elsewhere in the state.

Thursday's ruling could affect a lawsuit in which Wyoming charges the Fish and Wildlife Service had no reason to refuse to turn over management of wolves to Wyoming as it did to the other states. The case is before U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne.

"If the rule is vacated, there's a question that Judge Johnson has to consider of whether or not there is something for him to decide," said Bruce Salzburg, Wyoming attorney general.

Doug Honnold, an attorney for EarthJustice representing the plaintiffs, said he was gratified by Molloy's ruling, though he is sure there will be another chapter to the story.

"For today, we are celebrating that the approach we thought was flatly illegal has been rejected. The troubling consequences for the Endangered Species Act have been averted and the wolf hunts are blocked," Honnold said.

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The plaintiffs don't want wolves on the endangered species list forever, but they do want a solid plan in place, said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife. The government's plan was poorly devised and would have allowed too many wolves to be killed, she said.

"We need a good wolf management and delisting that allows for a healthy interconnected wolf population," Stone said.

The increase in the wolf population has brought livestock losses for ranchers and competition for hunters for big game, such as elk. Molloy's decision means ranchers in northwestern Montana will no longer be able to haze, harass or kill wolves that prey on their livestock, Sime said.

Wolves in southwestern Montana will revert to their "experimental population" status and ranchers there will still be able to kill wolves that attack their animals, she said.

But a big blow is the loss of a hunting season, Sime said.

"That's clearly a management tool that we want to have in the toolbox. We think it's legitimate and appropriate," she said.

Both Idaho and Montana held wolf hunts last year. Montana's kill ended with 73 wolves and Idaho's with 185.

At the end of 2009, there were at least 843 wolves in Idaho, 524 in Montana and 320 in Wyoming, with more in parts of Oregon and Washington state.

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