Conservation groups sue over Idaho wolf kill plan

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Conservation groups are suing federal and state officials over Idaho's plan to track and kill wolves from two packs in central Idaho.

The lawsuit, filed by Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project and Wilderness Watch in Pocatello's U.S. District Court on Monday, asks the judge to stop the plan immediately to give the case time to work through the courts. The environmental groups are joined by Ralph Maughan, a former Idaho State University professor, conservationist and long-time wolf recovery advocate from Pocatello.

Idaho wildlife officials hired the hunter late last year to begin killing the two packs in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game hopes it will aid the recovery of elk populations in the region. At the time, the department's wildlife bureau chief Jeff Gould said that using a professional hunter and trapper will help the department determine if it's a cost-effective method for managing wolves.

The conservation groups contend the large-scale removal of wolves contravenes federal 1964 Wilderness Act because it threatens to change the character of the large wilderness area. The groups say the Forest Service's decision to allow the state-hired hunter to use the Forest Service's backcountry airstrips and cabin demonstrates that the federal agency has approved of the state plan, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

"IDFG's wolf extermination program threatens the wilderness character of the largest forested wilderness in the continental United States by removing animals that are a wilderness icon and whose undisturbed presence in the wilderness is critical to maintaining ecological balance among wildlife species," Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso wrote in the lawsuit. "... Federal law does not permit the Forests Service to disregard its duty to safeguard the wilderness character of the Frank Church Wilderness."

The hunter, Gus Thoreson of Salmon, set out in mid-December. He had to fly into two backcountry airstrips before heading out on horseback with a team of three mules to reach the remote Forest Service ranger cabin.

Last year state game managers estimated Idaho's wolf population at 683, an 11 percent drop from 2012. The highest total was in 2009, when it estimated 859 wolves were in the state.

The conservation groups are asking the federal judge to permanently bar the Forest Service and state from conducting any wolf kill programs in the wilderness area unless those efforts comply with governing law.