BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Wolf hunting and trapping can resume near Yellowstone National Park after a Montana judge on Wednesday blocked the state from shutting down the practice over concerns that too many animals used in research were being killed.
The restraining order from Judge Nels Swandal allows hunting and trapping to resume in areas east and west of the town of Gardiner in Park County.
State officials closed the gray wolf season in those areas on Dec. 10. That came after several wolves collared for scientific research were killed, drawing complaints from wildlife advocates.
The move prompted a lawsuit from sporting groups and a state lawmaker from Park County, Rep. Alan Redfield, who said the public was not given enough chance to weigh in on the closures.
In his order, Swandal sided with the plaintiffs. He said the lack of public notice appeared to violate the Montana Constitution and threatened to deprive the public of the legal right to harvest wolves.
He ordered the state "to immediately reinstitute and allow hunting and trapping of wolves in all areas of Park County."
A Jan. 14 hearing was scheduled in the case. The other plaintiffs are Citizens for Balanced Use, Big Game Forever, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and Montana Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife.
A spokesman for the state, Ron Aasheim, said Montana wildlife commissioners followed proper public notice requirements before issuing the closures.
Wildlife advocate Marc Cooke said the lawsuit over the 60-square-mile closure area revealed the "irrational hatred" of some hunting and trapping supporters.
"You have 145,000 square miles in Montana, and they're fighting over a measly 60 square miles of land that is critical habitat for these animals. To me, it's very vindictive," he said.
Montana had an estimated 650 wolves at the end of 2011. Through Wednesday hunters reported killing 103 of the animals and trappers had killed at least 30 more.
State officials lifted quotas on wolves across most of Montana this spring in hopes of decreasing a predator population blamed for livestock attacks and driving down elk numbers in some areas.
But park officials said at least seven Yellowstone wolves — including five wearing tracking collars — were shot by hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Also shot were four collared wolves originally from the park but now living outside it. Three more shot in the vicinity of the park had unknown origins and were not wearing collars, park officials said.
The current season marks Montana's first experience with wolf trapping since the animals lost their endangered species protections last year under an order from Congress.
Wolf hunting has also been contentious in Wyoming this season. The state took over wolf management from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Oct. 1, and hunters killed 43 wolves out of a 52-animal quota before Wyoming's hunt ended Dec. 31.
Coalitions of environmental groups have filed federal lawsuits, now pending in Washington, D.C., and Denver, seeking to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reclaim wolf management from Wyoming.
The groups say they're concerned that Wyoming's wolf management plan won't ensure long term survival of the species, which the federal government reintroduced into Yellowstone in the mid-1990s.
Wolves in Wyoming are classified as unprotected predators that may be shot on sight in most of the state. They're managed as trophy game animals in a flexible trophy hunting zone on the outskirts of Yellowstone.
Idaho also allows hunting and trapping of wolves, although it allows a maximum of 30 animals a year to be taken in a zone just outside Yellowstone. Through Wednesday, hunters and trappers in Idaho reported killing 154 wolves statewide, including 11 near Yellowstone.