Billings, MT. (AP)  | By Matthew Brown    –     A U.S. judge on Thursday delayed for two more weeks the first grizzly bear hunts to be held in the Lower 48 states in almost three decades, as he considers whether federal protections for the animals should be restored.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen leaves the fate of about 700 bruins in and around Yellowstone National Park in limbo, more than a year after federal officials declared the population had recovered from near extermination.

Christensen previously delayed the hunts in Wyoming with an order that came two days before hunting was set to begin on Sept. 1.

Wildlife advocates and Native American tribes have sued to restore the bears’ threatened species status and requested the additional two-week delay. Attorneys for the federal government and the states of Idaho and Wyoming opposed the request.

Up to 23 bears could be killed in the hunts.

Christensen said further delay was justified because the deaths of those bears “would cause irreparable injury” to hunt opponents who want grizzlies protected.

“That hardship substantially outweighs the hardship to be endured by the defendants … who must refrain only from hunting grizzly bears for an additional two weeks,” Christensen wrote.

Wyoming’s hunt has two parts: Outlying areas with a quota of 12 bears, and prime grizzly habitat near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, where up to 10 bears could be killed.

Hunting in the prime habitat would be stopped if a single female bear were killed. No hunting is allowed in the two parks.

Idaho’s hunting quota is one bear.

The Yellowstone grizzly population has increased from an estimated 136 bears when they were granted protections in 1975. Bears now come into frequent conflicts with humans, through attacks on domestic livestock and people who encounter bears unexpectedly in the forest.

The Yellowstone region bears also range across a large portion of Montana, but state officials decided against a hunt this year in part to demonstrate their commitment to conserving grizzlies.

Montana was the last state in the Lower 48 to allow grizzly hunting, in 1991, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Grizzly bears elsewhere in the Lower 48 remain protected as a threatened species.