BILLINGS – Wildlife officials are dropping their short-lived proposal for a “research hunt” for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, and instead considering a “conservation hunt” that would trim the predators’ population in the name of reducing livestock attacks.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks attorney Bob Lane said Friday his agency could not justify a research hunt since the goal would have been to reduce the wolf’s population, not study it.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had said it would not condone such a proposal, according to Lane. Idaho also was considering a research hunt.
“We want to hunt wolves as part of our management. But we can’t justify it as far as research and it would probably be too limited for our purposes,” Lane said.
A court ruling last week put an estimated 1,367 wolves in the two states back on the endangered list. That will likely prompt the cancellation of wolf hunts planned for this year.
State officials still hope to have some type of hunting season in 2011.
Lane said a hunt carried out in the name of conservation was more justifiable, since the state could point to wolf attacks on livestock as proof the population had outgrown its habitat and needed to be reduced.
Another option would be to allow hunters to kill wolves in areas where big game herds are in decline.
The government in 2008 approved a regulation allowing wolves to be killed if they are impacting wildlife. However, Fish and Wildlife Service approval is required and no applications have yet been made to carry out such a hunt.
A Fish and Wildlife spokesman acknowledged the agency was in discussions with state officials about what steps they could take to control wolves in light of the Aug. 5 ruling from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula.
Spokesman Chris Tollefson would not comment on the talks, saying the government first must decide whether to appeal Molloy’s ruling.
“At this point, we’re still looking at the decision,” he said.
Molloy had allowed hunts in Montana and Idaho to take place last year, resulting in 258 wolves legally shot by hunters.
The decision to return the species to the endangered list was not based on any immediate threat to their survival. Rather, Molloy faulted the government for taking wolves off the endangered list in Montana and Idaho even as portions of the population in Wyoming remained listed.
Molloy said that was a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Environmental groups praised the ruling, saying it would allow the Northern Rockies wolf population to grow large enough to be sustainable over the long term.
But it left wildlife officials with few options to deal with the increasing number of livestock attacks by wolves.
In the absence of hunting, the killing of problem wolf packs by government wildlife agents is likely to again become the prime method of managing the species. In 2009, 270 wolves were killed by wildlife agents and ranchers defending their livestock.