By MATTHEW BROWN
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- A U.S. federal appeals court on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit from conservation groups that want to block wolf hunts that have killed more than 500 of the predators across the Northern Rockies in recent months.
The ruling from a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Congress had the right to intervene when it stripped protections from wolves last year.
Lawmakers stepped in after court rulings kept wolves on the endangered list for years after they reached recovery goals. Wildlife advocates claimed in their lawsuit that Congress violated the separation of powers by interfering with the courts.
But in an opinion authored by Judge Mary Schroeder, the court said Congress was within its rights, and that lawmakers had appropriately amended the Endangered Species Act to deal with Northern Rockies wolves.
"This case has made it clear that those who persist in trying to manage wildlife through the courts, in spite of all scientific evidence that this species has recovered, no longer have a defensible position," said Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, who had attached the amendment to a federal budget bill.
Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that sued to restore protections, said a Supreme Court appeal was possible but no decision had been made.
"We're very disappointed and very saddened," Robinson said. "Hundreds of wolves have been hunted and trapped and snared, and they are essential to their ecosystem." He called the congressional budget bill rider that lifted protections "an undemocratic way to promulgate a flawed policy."
The number of wolves in the region grew slightly last year. There are more than 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and expanding populations in portions of eastern Oregon and Washington.
Wolf hunting is allowed in Montana and Idaho and could resume in Wyoming this fall.
In parts of Montana, ranchers and local officials frustrated with continuing attacks on livestock have proposed bounties for hunters that kill wolves. Montana wildlife officials said they will consider ways to expand hunting after 166 wolves were killed this season, short of the state's 220-wolf quota.
Idaho allows trapping. Its 10-month wolf season runs until June and has claimed 353 wolves so far.
Idaho and Wyoming were the only states where wolf numbers declined last year, a slight drop from at least 777 in 2010 to a minimum of 746.
Wolves once thrived across North America but were exterminated across most of the continental U.S. by the 1930s, through government sponsored poisoning and bounty programs.
Wolves were put on the endangered list in 1974. Over the last two decades, state and federal agencies have spent more than $100 million on wolf restoration programs across the country. There are more than 4,500 of the animals in the upper Great Lakes and a struggling population of several dozen wolves in the Desert Southwest.
Prior lawsuits resulted first in the animals' reintroduction to the Northern Rockies and then later kept them on the endangered list for a decade after the species reached recovery goal of 300 wolves in three states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is monitoring the hunts. But agency officials have said they have no plans to intervene because the states have pledged to manage wolves responsibly.
Federal officials have pledged to step in to restore endangered species protections if wolf numbers drop to less than 100 animals in either Montana or Idaho.
Even without hunting, wolves are shot regularly in the region in response to livestock attacks. Since their reintroduction, more than 1,600 wolves have been shot by government wildlife agents or ranchers.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.