BILLINGS, Mont. - Wildlife advocates said they plan to file a settlement agreement with the U.S. government in federal court Friday that would take gray wolves off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho.
The deal between ten advocacy groups and the U.S. Department of Interior would allow hunting for the predators to resume in the two states.
It would keep wolves under federal protection, for now, in Oregon, Washington, Utah and Wyoming. And it would create a scientific panel to re-examine wolf recovery goals across the six-state Northern Rockies region.
Kieran Suckling with the Center for Biological Diversity said political pressure forced environmentalists into the settlement to avoid intervention from Congress. Suckling and others feared that pending bills on wolves could have broadly undermined the Endangered Species Act.
However, a split among the plaintiffs in the case has left three groups opposed to the deal, which needs approval from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula.
Tom Woodbury with the Western Watersheds Project said Friday that wolves still need federal protection, and his group will object to a settlement.
Department of Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff declined immediate comment.
Judge Molloy has rejected prior attempts to strip wolves of their protections, even as the population has expanded rapidly over the last decade.
There are an estimated 1,651 wolves in the region following a costly but successful restoration effort that also stirred widespread antipathy to wolves among western ranchers and hunters.
Only about 40 of the animals live in Oregon and Washington. But Suckling said the settlement agreement lays the groundwork for more wolves in those states and beyond by keeping them protected during their anticipated expansion.
"We need to start to build that second population and this puts us on the road to get that done," he said.