BILLINGS — Montana’s general wolf season opens Sunday with much looser rules than in past years, as state wildlife officials ramp up efforts to reduce the predators’ population in response to public pressure over livestock attacks and declines in some elk herds.
Lower license fees, a five-wolf per person bag limit and a longer season top the list of changes put in place for the 2013-2014 season.
Only two areas in the state — near Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks — have limits on how many gray wolves can be killed.
Conservation groups have criticized the state’s liberal wolf hunting rules as a threat to their long-term population. But livestock owners and hunters have pushed for even more wolves to be killed, and state officials say they intend to maintain a smaller, but still viable, wolf population.
At the beginning of 2013 Montana had 625 wolves. That was a slight drop from the prior year and the first decline since Canadian wolves were brought to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s as a way to bolster the population.
State officials hope to continue driving the population down this year but have not set a target number.
The number of out-of-state hunters buying licenses is up sharply this year, with 370 purchased through this week compared to 55 at the same point last year. That comes after the Legislature reduced out-of-state licenses from $250 to $50.
Almost 6,000 state residents have purchased wolf licenses so far for $19 apiece. That’s roughly in line with last year’s sales figures.
The general rifle season runs through March 15.
Trapping season for wolves starts December 15 and runs through February 28. The two-week archery season for wolves ends Saturday, with two harvested as of Friday.
Last year, hunters in Montana took 128 wolves and trappers 97 for a total harvest of 225 animals.
Gray wolves were taken off the endangered species list for much of the Northern Rockies in 2011.
A pending proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would lift protections across most remaining areas of the Lower 48 states where protections are still in place.
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