MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
An examination of Montana's first public gray wolf hunt showed at least nine of the animals were killed in an area prone to livestock attacks a finding that could blunt criticism that the hunt was ineffective. Confident state wildlife officials said they could increase the quota on the predators next year. They want to zero in on a number that would strike a balance between protecting the wolf population and curbing attacks on livestock and big game herds. "We're on the right track," said Carolyn Sime, g r a y wo l f coordinator with Montana Fish, Wildlife And Parks. However, the hunt in Montana and a wolf season in neighboring Idaho must first pass muster wi th a federal judge i n Missoula. An estimated 1,350 gray wolves in the Northern Rockies were removed from the endangered list in the spring. About 300 wolves in Wyoming remain on the list. In September, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy let this year's hunts proceed in Montana and Idaho. But his ruling also said environmentalists were likely to prevail in their bid to restore federal protections. Arguments in the environmentalists' case could come as early as February. Idaho and Montana officials backed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have said hunting can be done responsibly and is crucial to keeping wolf numbers in check. To underscore that contention, Sime pointed to a new analysis of Montana's hunt, which ended Nov. 16. At least nine of the 72 wolves killed were in the Big Hole Valley site of frequent wolf attacks on livestock. Just two breeding female wolves were killed out of an estimated 34 statewide. Wol f re s earche r Mar k Hebblewhite from the University of Montana said the results show hunting does not necessarily put the species in more danger. "There's no other wolf hunt in the world that has as many regulations on when and (how many) wolves can be killed," he said. "You cross the border into Canada and you can kill any wolf anytime you want." There were about 500 wolves in Montana last year. Even with the 72 killed by hunters and another 127 killed by wildlife control agents, poachers, ranchers and other causes that figure was projected to grow during the last year. If that happens, it could defuse arguments that hunting is harming the broader population. Environmentalists are doubtful. They argue at least 2,000 of the predators are needed to protect against a future population collapse. "We're close, but we're not there yet," said Matt Skoglund with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Ranchers like 63-year-old Jerry Ehmann counter the state's hunt is not doing enough. Ehmann said he used to run about 200 head of cattle on 25,000-acres of public land in s o u t hwe s t e r n Mo n ta n a ' s Bitterroot Range. After wolves started harassing his animals this year and five calves went missing, Ehmann decided to cut back to only 72 animals and keep them fenced in on his ranch near Sula. He sold off the remaining cattle in November. "They're going to have to do something drastic poison them or trap them. They're just too smart of a critter to be hunted. That wasn' t enough, " Ehmann said. In Idaho, hunters have taken 119 wolves this year out of a 220 animal quota. Hunting there is scheduled to continue through March. Biologists are now compiling an end-of-year population estimates in the two states in preparation for setting next year's quota. Montana officials also are planning to tweak their regulations to cut down on illegal wolf kills and spread out where the harvest takes place.