BILLINGS – Montana is shutting down its first public hunt for gray wolves since their removal from the endangered species list after state officials said they expected to meet the season’s quota of 75 by Monday evening.
The quota was met two weeks before the season’s scheduled close. The 75 killed equals about 15 percent of a statewide wolf population estimated at 500.
Yet even with the success among hunters, the number of wolves in Montana is expected to increase this year by 20 percent or more because wolves are such prolific breeders.
Whether a hunt will be repeated next year is uncertain: A lawsuit to return the predator to the endangered list is pending before Judge Donald Molloy in U.S. District Court in Missoula.
State wildlife commissioner Bob Ream of Helena — a wildlife biologist who spent 20 years studying the animals — declared the 2009 hunt a success.
“For a first try, the state did very well,” Ream said Monday. “It happened quicker than a lot of us thought it would, but all in all, the geographic distribution of the harvest was good.”
Because the wolves killed were scattered across the state, Ream said the hunt might begin to put a dent in the number of livestock killed every year by the animals.
That’s become an increasing problem in recent years as wolves expanded into areas inhabited by people and livestock.
First introduced in the mid-1990s in backcountry areas of Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, the predators have since spread across the Northern Rockies.
The order to halt Montana’s hunt came after state wildlife officials said the regional quota had been met for southwestern Montana and was expected to be met in northern Montana. Wolf hunting in the southeastern portion of the state closed Oct. 26, after hunters nearly filled the quota there in an early season hunt just outside Yellowstone National Park.
Those shootings — which included four members of the park’s Cottonwood Pack, which is famous among wolf watchers — drew criticism from conservationists. State officials have vowed to change their regulations next year to prevent a recurrence.
Meanwhile, hunting continues in Idaho, where 104 wolves have been taken out of a quota of 220. Wildlife officials there are thinking about extending the season in certain hunting zones.
Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Unsworth tells the Lewiston Tribune there may be one or two areas of the state where more time may be needed for hunters to thin specific wolf populations.
The Idaho season is scheduled to end Dec. 31.
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