Wolf quota eyed after 9 shot near Yellowstone

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - October 13, 2009

More than 1,300 gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana this spring following a costly federal restoration effort.

Hunting has been promoted as a way to keep the population of the fast-breeding species in check and reduce wolf attacks on livestock. Hunters in the two states have killed at least 48 wolves since Sept. 1.

However, all but two of the 11 wolves killed in Montana came from a small portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, along the northern border of Yellowstone. And at least four were from Yellowstone's Cottonwood Pack, including the group's breeding female.

Concerned about the heavily concentrated killing, state wildlife commissioners last week suspended hunting in the area.

On Tuesday, commissioners will consider a range of additional responses, from reallocating the season quota of 75 wolves to shutting down the hunting season in part of the state.

"We've missed the mark a little this first year," said Carolyn Sime, lead wolf biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Shooting a wolf, particularly in some of the sparsely vegetated terrain around Yellowstone, proved easier than expected, she said.

The Absaroka-Beartooth was one of two remote "backcountry" areas of Montana where wolf hunting was allowed before the statewide season opening, set for Oct. 25.

Grazing is generally not allowed in the backcountry. That means the harvest of wolves there gives little help to ranchers suffering losses from wolf attacks. In addition, critics said the shootings could choke off the flow of young wolves leaving Yellowstone to establish packs outside the park.

"Yellowstone can't be a source for wolves to colonize other areas if they get blown away right at the boundary," said Norman Bishop, a former Yellowstone park ranger now on the board of the Wolf Recovery Foundation, an Idaho-based advocacy group.

Sime said that with wolves firmly established in many areas of Montana, Yellowstone's importance as a source of wolves had diminished.

There were 89 packs in Montana at the end of 2008, including 18 in the part of the state that borders Yellowstone.

"From a biological perspective, it's a non-issue," Sime said, noting the death of nine wolves was unlikely to hurt the overall population.

Environmentalists countered that the concentrated shootings in the Absaroka-Beartooth area showed the Idaho and Montana hunts were too hastily planned. They also decried the loss of wolves from the park, a wildlife haven where hunting is not allowed.

Yellowstone was one of two areas where the animals were reintroduced beginning in 1995 after being absent across most of the Northern Rockies for decades.

In Idaho, which has about 800 wolves, wildlife officials said their hunt has gone more smoothly. Thirty-seven wolves had been killed in Idaho through Sunday, with the harvest spread across 11 of the state's 12 wolf-hunting zones.

Idaho has a quota of 220 wolves. Like Montana, the state also had an early season opening in some areas, although none bordering Yellowstone.

Bob Ream, a Montana wildlife commissioner from Helena who spent more than 20 years researching wolves, said in hindsight it was unwise for Montana to allow so many wolves to be killed on land adjacent to the park.

But because wolves breed so prolifically, expanding their numbers by as much as 30 percent a year, he said any harm done would be temporary.

"There's plenty of wolves to fill in for those nine, either from the park or other parts of the Absaroka-Beartooth," Ream said.

Any decision from commissioners on Tuesday will be set against the backdrop of a federal lawsuit that is challenging the removal of wolves from the endangered species list.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy last month allowed the hunting seasons in Idaho and Montana to go forward, rejecting an injunction requested by environmentalists. But Molloy also said the environmentalists were likely to ultimately prevail, leaving future hunts in doubt.

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