By AP News, 2-15-12
BILLINGS – Hunters in Montana had shot more than 160 gray wolves as the season came to a close across most of the state Wednesday — a sharp increase from the last hunt in 2009 but still short of the state's 220-animal quota.
In portions of the Bitterroot Mountains near the Idaho border, state wildlife commissioners are considering an extension to the season in response to complaints about declining elk numbers.
But for most of Montana the season was due to end after sunset Wednesday. The 166 wolves reported killed through Tuesday equaled 75 percent of the statewide quota.
Hunters and trappers in neighboring Idaho have killed 298 wolves to date in a season that runs through June 30. Idaho has no statewide quota.
Some hunters and livestock owners want more wolf hunting. Wildlife advocates have urged restraint.
Wildlife officials said the hunts were meant to strike a balance between those competing pressures.
"The quota is a ceiling; it's not a basement. If we haven't reached the ceiling we haven't failed," said Bob Ream, chairman of Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission. "It's been a good season and people should treat wolves like other game animals."
Wolves in parts of five Northern Rockies states came off the endangered species list last year under an order from Congress. They remain listed in Wyoming and there is no public hunting for the animals in Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Both Montana and Idaho set their wolf seasons with the aim of reducing the predators' population, in hopes of curbing livestock attacks and propping up elk numbers. Elk herds have declined in scattered areas since wolves were reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s, but remain robust overall.
It's uncertain what effect the number of wolves actually harvested will have on the animal's overall population. The most recent population count, from the end of 2010, tallied a minimum 566 of the predators in Montana and at least 705 in Idaho.
The 2011 wolf population count for Idaho and Montana is not expected to be completed until next month, wildlife officials said.
In 2009, when there was a minimum of 524 wolves in Montana, computer modeling by state wildlife officials suggested a 165-animal harvest would result in a 14 percent population increase.
Seventy-three wolves were shot by hunters in Montana that year during a brief period when wolves were off the endangered list before a lawsuit restored their endangered status.
Ream said Montana's season could be adjusted next year to loosen hunting restrictions in some peripheral areas of the wolves' range.
He mentioned areas where wolves run into frequent conflicts with livestock, such as the Big Hole River valley south of Butte and parts of eastern Montana that lack the vast expanses of forested wilderness in western parts of the state.
Last month, Ream joined with fellow commissioner Ron Moody to vote against extending the hunting season in the Bitterroot through April 1.
Moody was concerned the proposal would allow hunting during the wolves' breeding season — a concern latched onto by environmental groups that have derided the possibility of hunters shooting pregnant wolves.
Three commissioners voted for the proposal. A final vote is set for Thursday.
On Wednesday, in a working session ahead of the vote, Ream presented the rest of the commission with the latest findings from a $600,000 predator-prey study under way in the Bitterroot. It showed that wolves aren't the biggest elk calf predator in the area, but that mountain lions are.
Out of 36 collared elk calves that died between last spring and this month, mountain lions killed 13, black bears and wolves killed four each, five died of natural causes and 10 died of unknown causes.
Ream said that data shows that all predators in the system, not just wolves, should be considered when planning to reverse declining elk numbers. The commission also shouldn't change quota numbers while the study is still under way, he said.
Commissioner Dan Vermillion of Livingston initially voted in favor of the wolf hunt extension, but said this week that he was uncertain how he would vote Thursday.
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