MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge heard arguments Tuesday on whether gray wolves in Montana and Idaho should be protected once more under the Endangered Species Act, a case that both sides say could affect how the wildlife protection law is applied in the future.

Defenders of Wildlife, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other wildlife advocates sued the federal government after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service named wolves a distinct population segment and removed them from the endangered species list in April 2009.

The Fish and Wildlife Service turned over wolf management to Montana and Idaho wildlife officials but left federal endangered species protections in place for wolves in Wyoming, where state law is considered hostile to the animals' survival.

The plaintiffs say the government should not be able to split the level of protection between the states, particularly when the wolves in all three states are considered part of the same distinct population segment, attorney Douglas Honnald said Monday.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it can designate endangered species protections to just that portion of the species' range where it is endangered — and wolves outside Wyoming don't face the same threat as those inside state lines.

"There's no doubt the wolf population is recovered in the northern Rocky Mountains," said Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery project leader.

Wildlife advocates say if the wolves are considered endangered in one significant portion of their range the whole species should be considered endangered — it's a scientific and genetic determination, not a political one.

Both sides say the decision could shape whether the government can use political considerations, such as state laws and boundaries, in choosing how and where a species can be listed under the act.

The plaintiffs also are challenging what the Fish and Wildlife Service determined as an adequate wolf population to consider the species recovered and whether the states have strong enough laws to protect the wolves from dropping back down to dangerously low population levels.

Each side is asking Molloy to grant a summary judgment, which could end the court case before it goes to trial. Molloy is expected to rule later this year.

Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, but following a reintroduction program in the mid-1990s, there are now more than 1,700 wolves in the Northern Rockies

The Fish and Wildlife Service has told each state to keep its minimum wolf population at 150 wolves with 15 breeding pairs or the wolves could go back under federal protection.

At the end of 2009, there were at least 843 wolves in Idaho, 524 in Montana and 320 in Wyoming, with more in parts of Oregon and Washington state.

That's too many for some. The population boom has meant livestock losses for ranchers and competition for hunters for big game, such as elk.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission chairman Bob Ream said last month that the commission supports the idea that it's time to decrease the wolf population — the question is how much and how fast.

Montana and Idaho each held wolf hunts last year, Montana's ending with 73 wolves killed and Idaho with 185 killed. Both states are considering expanding their quotas and the tactics allowed for this year's hunt.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.