By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Wolves in Wyoming should be stripped of Endangered Species Act protections and management given to the state rather than the U.S. government, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday, a decision that opens the door for hunting of the animals.
U.S. wildlife managers in 2012 determined that wolves in Wyoming had rebounded from the threat of extinction and that the state plan to oversee the creatures was adequate to ensure their survival.
But conservation groups sued, contending the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had acted in an arbitrary and unlawful fashion in finding Wyoming's plan acceptable. They argued the state would fail to maintain the animals at certain population levels and would subject a portion of them to being shot on sight.
A U.S. district judge sided with environmentalists in a 2014 decision and the several hundred wolves in Wyoming were once again placed under federal safeguards.
The state, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency and others appealed that ruling and, on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia reversed the lower court, finding that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had indeed "exercised its judgment in a reasonable way" in concluding that Wyoming's management plan would provide wolves with sufficient protections.
"The record demonstrates that the Service reasonably and adequately responded to concerns about the reliability of Wyoming's management plan," the court said in the opinion.
The decision was quickly hailed by Wyoming's Republican governor, Matt Mead, who said in a written statement, "This is the right decision for wolves and for Wyoming."
Mead said the state will once again assume management of wolves once the 2012 delisting rule is formally reinstated but the time frame was not immediately clear.
Conservationists decried the ruling, which they said they were still reviewing.
"But we're going to continue to fight to protect wolves from hostile and extreme state management policies where they exist," Tim Preso, attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice, told Reuters by telephone on Friday.
Wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the Lower 48 states before coming under federal protections in the 1970s.
They were re-introduced to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s over the objections of ranchers and sportsmen, who feared wolves would prey on livestock and game animals favored by hunters.
In 2011, wolves in Idaho and Montana were delisted through an unprecedented act of Congress. Both of the Northern Rocky Mountain states have liberal hunting and trapping seasons tied to wolves.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sandra Maler)