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The gray wolf is a top predator, an essential part of the ecosystem, a symbol of the West. And it's a symbol best displayed, not as pelts on a wall, but by packs in the wild.

Exterminated like vermin, a bounty on their heads, the gray wolf was hunted to extinction in the West. Reintroduced in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995, the endangered species staged a remarkable, yet still incomplete, recovery. Now, due to the shortsighted decision by the Bush and Obama administrations to remove the wolf from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana, that recovery is threatened.

The future of the wolf is now in the hands of the courts, and it's not going well. This past week, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy shot down a request for an injunction to force a cease-fire in Idaho and Montana's war on wolves.

Molloy ruled that the hunts will not result in irreparable harm to the species. Montana will cull 75 of its 550 wolves beginning Sept. 15. In Idaho, where the hunt could blunt the wolves' ability to reclaim their range in northern Utah, officials hope to kill 220 of about 800 animals. Already, 10 percent of the West's 1,650 wolves die each year in accidents and poaching incidents, or are killed for molesting livestock.

But all is not lost. The judge indicated that the environmental and animal welfare groups that sought the injunction may well prevail in their larger suit, which claims that the wolves were improperly removed from the endangered list.

Molloy wrote that the wolves of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming constitute a "distinct population segment" that, under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, must be managed as a single entity. Federal officials likely erred by delisting Idaho and Montana wolves while protecting the animals in Wyoming, where the state's misguided, shoot-on-sight management plan puts the population in peril.

The court case, like the wolves, is a political football. Ranchers, hunters, outfitters and politicians who fan the wolf-eradication flames argue the animals do more harm than good.

But wolves typically prey on older, weaker game animals, improving the genetics and health of the herds. Outfitters could capitalize by guiding wolf-watching expeditions. Ranchers should be adequately reimbursed for lost livestock. And the wolf should be allowed to live unmolested and naturally extend its range.

There's no need for wolf slaughters disguised as "management plans." Wolves will manage quite well if just left alone. Hopefully, the judge will come to that conclusion.