A federal judge has denied a proposed settlement agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”) and 10 conservation groups that would have lifted Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) protections for the gray wolf in Montana and Idaho. In the decision (pdf), U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy cited the court’s lack of authority to put only a portion of an endangered species’ population under state management. He reasoned that “the District Court is still constrained by the ‘rule of law.’ No matter how useful a course of conduct might be to achieve a certain end, no matter how beneficial or noble the end, the limit of power granted to the District Court must abide by the responsibilities that flow from past political decisions made by the Congress. The law cannot be ignored to accommodate a partial settlement. The rule of law does not afford the District Court the power to decide a legal issue but then at the behest of some of the litigants to reverse course and permit what the Congress has forbidden because some of those interested have sensibly, or for other reasons, decided to lay a dispute to rest.” The opinion also explained that the court couldn’t approve the settlement because not all parties involved in the litigation agreed with it.

The proposed settlement would have allowed the Service to temporarily return management of the recovered wolf populations in Idaho and Montana to the states, while continuing efforts to recover the species in other parts of the Rocky Mountains. Federal protections would have remained in place in Wyoming and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah. The settlement was an attempt to end ongoing litigation over Molloy’s August 2010 decision that held that the entire region’s wolf population must be listed under the ESA, rather than the wolf’s status varying from state to state.

In addition, according to the Seattle Times, the budget bill currently pending before Congress includes a provision that would take the gray wolf off the endangered species list in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah. The bill requires the Obama administration to lift ESA protections for the gray wolf within 60 days. Under the proposed bill, ESA protections would remain in place in Wyoming.