- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Five conservation groups on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in Idaho seeking to stop a federal agency from killing wolves in the state until a new environmental analysis is prepared.

Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project and four other groups in the 27-page federal lawsuit say the 2011 analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services is flawed and outdated.

They’re asking a federal judge to force the agency to prepare an environmental impact statement, a lengthy process, and issue a temporary restraining order preventing the agency from killing wolves in Idaho until the updated analysis complying with federal environmental law is complete.

The groups say Wildlife Services killed at least 72 wolves in the state last year, mostly following reports of livestock depredation.

“Wildlife Services has never even bothered to consider how much mortality a healthy wolf population can handle,” Andrea Santarsiere, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Recent research indicates the state may be overestimating wolf populations - something Wildlife Services must consider before killing more wolves.”

Wildlife Services and its state director, Todd Grimm, are named in the lawsuit. Grimm declined to comment to The Associated Press, citing the pending litigation.

The environmental groups contend changes in the understanding of wolves and ecosystems as well as changes in recreational hunting and trapping in Idaho need to be considered in a new analysis.

“It is long past time that we base wildlife management decisions on the best available science, not on antiquated, disproven anti-wolf rhetoric,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says Idaho had a minimum of 786 wolves and 33 breeding pairs as of Dec. 31. That’s above the minimum management target the agency has of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs.

“It’s our view that the wolf population continues to do well under state management,” said Seth Willey, Fish and Wildlife’s branch chief for classification and recovery in the agency’s Denver, Colorado, regional office.

Its report on wolf populations in Idaho put out earlier this year is the last in the agency’s five-year monitoring program that’s required following a species’ removal from Endangered Species Act protections. A petition has been filed to extend the monitoring program, and Willey said a decision on that is pending but declined to comment. He also declined to comment on some of the concerns raised by the environmental groups in the lawsuit.

Among those concerns, the environmental groups say, is that Wildlife Services doesn’t consider whether livestock owners took common-sense measures to avoid conflicts with wolves.

“Killing wolves for private livestock interests is wrong, especially on public lands, where wildlife deserves to come first,” said Travis Bruner of Western Watersheds Project.

Idaho officials in February announced that 20 wolves had been killed in the Clearwater Region in northern Idaho to bolster elk populations in the area. Wildlife Services used a helicopter to shoot and kill the animals.

Mike Keckler, spokesman with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said the state agency doesn’t comment on litigation.

As of Wednesday, the state agency on its website said hunters during the 2015-2016 wolf season killed 142 wolves by hunting and another 124 by trapping. Wolf trapping season is closed in the state, and most hunting areas are also closed. But some hunting remains open on private land in northern Idaho as well as some remote public land.

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