BILLINGS, Mont. -- A federal judge in Montana has rejected a request by the government to delay a lawsuit seeking to place the gray wolf back on the endangered species list, saying he's "unwilling to risk more deaths."
At least 39 of the Northern Rockies' 1,500 gray wolves have been killed since they lost federal protection in March. That action placed wolves under the authority of state wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
The three states have relaxed rules for killing wolves that harass or harm livestock. The states are also planning public hunts later this year -- the first in decades.
Environmental and animal rights groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week, claiming the loss of federal protection threatens the wolf's successful recovery. They also asked for a court injunction to restore federal control over wolves while the case is pending.
In rejecting the agency's request for a two-week extension in the case, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy set a hearing for May 29 in Missoula, Mont.
"The court is unwilling to risk more deaths by delaying its decision on plaintiffs' motion for preliminary injunction," Molloy wrote in Wednesday's court order.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had argued that even if the wolves were still on the endangered list, many would have still been killed by government wildlife agents responding to livestock attacks. Molloy wrote that assertion was "neither compelling nor comforting."
Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Sharon Rose said the agency would have preferred more time, but will be prepared to argue the case on May 29. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversaw wolf recovery efforts over the last two decades.
The environmentalists' attorney, Doug Honnold with Earthjustice, declined comment on Molloy's order, saying it spoke for itself.