Sheep ranchers have no constitutional right to shoot grizzly bears they suspect have killed their sheep, a federal appeals court ruled recently in a Montana case.

The Montana ranchers contended the government had, in effect, turned the bears into "government agents" by protecting them as a "threatened" species, who in turn took the ranchers' property.The ranchers, including Richard Christy, claimed a right to protect their property from immediate destruction by federally protected wildlife.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected their claims.

The three judges ruled Secretary of Interior Donald Hodel was within his authority to limit controlled hunting of grizzly bears in certain wilderness regions of Montana to 25 bears a year.

"The Endangered Species Act makes no mention . . . of the right to kill a member of a threatened species in defense of property," wrote Judge Arthur Alarcon.

Christy, who owned 1,700 head of sheep that grazed on land leased from the Blackfeet Indian tribe near Glacier National Park in 1982, was fined $2,500 for killing a grizzly.

He shot the bear after bears killed approximately 20 sheep he estimated were worth $1,200.

Christy took his sheep off the land after losing about 84 of them to bears during the period of the lease, according to the court.

Christy, Thomas Guthrie and Ira Perkins asked that U.S. District Judge Paul Hatfield in Great Falls issue a permanent injunction preventing the government from enforcing the grizzly bear regulations against them.

Hatfield refused.

The government rejected proposals for live-trapping and transplanting of bears as too dangerous and too expensive, based on Fish and Wildlife Service information and data from governors of five states, including Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado.

Hodel did determine that limited sport hunting and selected killing of not more than 25 bears a year in the Bob Marshall wilderness area could lower the threat to livestock.