HELENA – Montana wildlife regulators on Thursday set this year’s wolf-hunt quota at 186, more than doubling 2009’s quota, with the aim of reducing the state’s wolf population for the first time since they were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in 1995.
Advocates for the wolf hunt hailed the decision, although some said they would still like to see a bigger number.
But whether a hunting season actually happens may be in the hands of a federal judge. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is expected to make a ruling after hearing arguments last month in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups seeking to restore Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.
Opponents of the wolf hunt argued the FWP commission should end the hunt before the courts act.
“We think any wolf hunt is premature,” said Matt Skoglund, with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We don’t think the wolf population has recovered yet.”
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission also created an archery hunt for 2010 and increased the number of management areas from three to 13 to have more control over the number of wolves killed in a given region.
Licenses go on sale next month for this fall’s hunt, which is slated to run until Dec. 31. Montana wildlife chief Ken McDonald says if hunters meet the quota of 186, state numbers could drop from 524 wolves to between 411 and 488.
Ranchers and hunters say the wolf population has grown too high, which has led to more attacks on livestock and game.
Victor hunter Steve Wilson said a much larger hunt is needed to bring wolf population numbers down to around 150. He argued that elk in some Bitterroot Valley areas are in danger of being wiped out.
After the federal government gave Montana and Idaho control over wolf management in those states last year, they held their first hunting seasons. Montana’s hunt ended with 73 wolves killed and Idaho’s with 185 killed, short of the quota of 220.
Wildlife officials in Idaho also are considering a higher quota for this year’s hunt.
Federal protections remain in place for wolves in Wyoming, where the state law is considered hostile to the species’ survival.
The quota does not include wolves killed by the wildlife officials responding to complaints of attacks on livestock. Another 145 wolves were killed that way in 2009.
Wildlife officials are predicting the those depredation kills could increase this year, and the commission loosened its policy earlier this year to give federal wildlife officials greater authority to trap and shoot wolves that kill livestock.
Ben Lamb of the Montana Wildlife Federation said his group supports the 186 target set by wildlife officials, but added that his group would like to let individual hunters help out with the hunts of wolves that kill livestock.
“Why not have guys up there that are willing to hunt wolves, rather than spending taxpayer money to do it?” he said.
Models run by wildlife biologists at the agency predict that depredation kills could increase 20 percent to 50 percent. The highest kill rate could result in the lowest predicted total wolf population of 411.
Commission chairman Bob Ream said he does not envision wolf numbers dropping anywhere near that far, although he does expect there will be a drop in overall population figures. Ream said that the hunting quota set by the commission is defensible, and believes that hunting will always be a necessary management tool for a wolf population that has grown rapidly.
“I think it’s going to be part of the scenario into the future,” he said.
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