SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Conservation groups on Saturday asked a federal appellate court to stop upcoming hunts in Montana and Idaho that target more than 1,000 wolves.

In the request for an emergency injunction, filed electronically to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, environmentalists argued that the planned hunting and trapping will cause irreparable harm to a wolf population slated to be reduced by 69 percent, dropping to 496 from 1,566.

The petition by Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others comes as Montana is reporting brisk sales to hunters of wolf permits and Idaho on August 30 opens a wolf season that sanctions neck snares, foothold traps and luring wolves with electronic calls that imitate other wolves and injured prey.

"Idaho and Montana have set hunting seasons that will decimate wolves in the Northern Rockies," Michael Garrity, head of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, told Reuters.

Fewer than 100 wolves were reintroduced to the region by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the mid-1990s after hunting, trapping and poisoning campaigns drove the predator to the edge of extinction. Ranchers and hunters opposed the restoration, arguing wolves would prey on livestock and game such as elk.

As wolf numbers climbed, Northern Rocky Mountain states pushed to have wolves stripped of protections under the Endangered Species Act so that populations could be cut by public hunting in addition to lethal control measures by government agents.

The Fish and Wildlife Service agreed, but efforts in recent years to take wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming off the list of threatened and endangered species were blocked by environmentalists' legal challenges.

Wolves in Idaho and Montana were delisted this year in a provision attached to a stopgap budget bill approved by Congress in April. It was the first time an animal had been delisted through a political process rather than scientific review.

The two states crafted hunting seasons as conservation groups unsuccessfully argued before U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in Montana that Congress had violated the constitutional separation of powers among branches of government by intervening in an ongoing legal dispute.

In his August 3 ruling, Molloy sided with attorneys for the Obama administration, who argued that Congress had effectively amended the Endangered Species Act even though lawmakers sponsoring the provision strongly denied at the time they were tampering with the nation's landmark conservation law.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies and others on Monday asked the Ninth Circuit to overturn the ruling by Molloy, who wrote that his hands were tied by a prior Ninth Circuit decision which found Congress did not overstep its bounds when it amended law by implication rather than separate legislation.

Environmentalists are now asking the Ninth Circuit to temporarily halt wolf hunts pending the court's decision on the appeal of Molloy's ruling. The overall aim of conservationists is to restore federal safeguards to wolves.

An Obama administration spokesman on Saturday declined comment on the latest twist in the long-running legal battle over wolves.

Protections are still in place for the 343 wolves in Wyoming. Under a deal brokered this month between the Fish and Wildlife Service and Governor Matt Mead, wolves in that state may be delisted and open for hunting as early as next fall.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst)

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