By BEN NEARY
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Gov. Dave Freudenthal said Wednesday he's encouraged that a federal judge in Montana last week denied a request from environmental groups seeking to stop wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana.
Freudenthal also suggested that if Wyoming can't manage wolves as it sees fit, it may ultimately choose to step back and let the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to handle them in the state.
In his ruling last week, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, Mont., stated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to leave federal protections in place for wolves in Wyoming while removing them in Idaho and Montana appears to violate the law.
Molloy rejected arguments from environmental groups that said allowing wolf hunts to proceed in Montana and Idaho this month would cause irreparable harm.
Freudenthal told reporters at a news conference that he believes Molloy's order shows the judge believes that hunting is necessary to manage wolves. Wyoming has been struggling for years to get the Fish and Wildlife Service to turn over management of the roughly 300 wolves in the state.
The federal agency has flip-flopped on the issue of whether to allow Wyoming to manage the wolves.
The Fish and Wildlife Service initially accepted Wyoming's plan to declare wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in most of the state. However, it later abandoned the state's plan after Molloy ruled last year in a separate lawsuit that it wouldn't give wolves adequate protection.
"I was encouraged to see the judge recognize that hunting, essentially management, of the wolf population was probably necessary," Freudenthal said. "Heretofore, that was not a statement that we have seen, or would have anticipated from the judge, so I was encouraged by that."
Freudenthal also said he agreed with Molloy's statement that it doesn't seem proper for the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist wolves in two states and leave them protected in Wyoming.
Wyoming has a separate lawsuit pending in federal court in Cheyenne challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service's refusal to delist wolves in Wyoming.
"I don't know where this issue goes," Freudenthal said. "To some degree, if we cannot get a favorable resolution where the state should spend its money trying to manage the wolf, then fine, we'll just let the feds manage them."
Freudenthal said the state will continue to litigate the issue of wolf management. But he said that if the state faces the prospect of managing wolves only on a "mother-may-I basis," it may be better to allow the federal government to retain responsibility.
If the judge decides that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the law by leaving federal protections in place in Wyoming, environmental and conservation groups will argue that the proper response would be to reinstate protections in all three states, said Doug Honnold, attorney for Earthjustice in Montana.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.