BILLINGS – Montana and Idaho are moving to host the first open gray wolf hunts in the continental United States after the animal’s removal from the endangered list across much of the Northern Rockies.
Montana wildlife commissioners voted Wednesday to let hunters throughout the state shoot 75 wolves, or 15 percent of Montana’s population, beginning in mid-September
In Idaho, commissioners meet later this month to set their quota. A prior plan called for hunting almost 250 wolves.
Legal challenges to the hunts are certain as environmentalists argue wolves could again be driven toward extinction.
State wildlife managers said the quotas are crucial to keeping the fast-breeding predators in check and to limit attacks on domestic sheep and calves.
“We’re signaling our commitment to being responsible wildlife managers,” said Montana’s lead wolf biologist Carolyn Sime.
Without hunting or another means to manage wolves, she added, “you either eliminate all the wolves or you eliminate all the livestock.”
The wolves once ranged from Alaska to Mexico. Hunting, trapping and government-sponsored poisoning wiped out the species across most of the lower 48 states by the 1930s.
They did not return to America’s Northern Rockies in significant numbers until the mid-1990s, when 66 Canadian wolves were relocated to Idaho and Wyoming.
The wolves were briefly pulled from the endangered species list last year, Wyoming let its residents kill a small number in a designated predator zone before the animals were reinstated to the list.
There are now an estimated 1,350 of the predators in Montana and Idaho. Three-hundred wolves in Wyoming remain under federal protection because of a state law there considered hostile to wolves.
Wyoming Attorney General Bruce Salzburg has challenged that decision, arguing the state is entitled to manage wolves and would ensure their conservation.
Alaska has the most wolves in the country — as many as 11,200. The gray wolf was never listed as endangered in the state and Alaskan officials say their annual wolf hunts do not threaten its population.
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