(CN) - The government can remove the Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf from the Endangered Species List, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday, paving the way for continued hunting of the predators in several western states.
The federal appeals court in Pasadena found that Congress had not overstepped its authority when it delisted the wolf species in a rider to a Defense Department bill last April.
A Montana federal judge found the move constitutional a few months later, tossing a suit from environmental groups. WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Center for Biological Diversity and others had also pleaded unsuccessfully to stop hunts planned in several states in the wake of the delisting.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially removed the species from the list in 2009, but a federal judge blocked the agency's final rule on the issue. The court said the agency had violated the Endangered Species Act by protecting a listed species only across part of its range.
Wolves remained protected until the passage of an appropriations bill by Congress this past April. A rider to that bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law, directed Fish and Wildlife to reissue the 2009 rule.
Idaho and Montana quickly organized a hunting season after the delisting. Some 500 wolves have since been killed, according to WildEarth Guardians.
"We are dismayed with the court's decision, which failed to uphold the constitution, sets a bad precedent, and betrays the American vision for a truly wild West," WildEarth Guardians carnivore protection director Wendy Keefover said in a statement
The groups had argued
that congressional removal of an endangered species from the list violated the separation of powers doctrine. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously disagreed.
"Here, Congress has directed the agency to issue the rule 'without regard to any other provision of statute or regulation that applies to issuance of such rule,'" Judge Mary Schroeder wrote for the court.
"This court has held that, when congress so directs an agency action, with similar language, Congress has amended the law."
The wolf species roams the Northern Rocky Mountains through Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and northern Utah.
Hunting season in Idaho began Aug. 30, 2011, and "will extend well into spring 2012," according to WildEarth Guardians. The Montana season began last September and was extended into the new year after hunters had not filled a 220-wolf quota.