BILLINGS — Public opinion on gray wolves remains sharply split as Montana and Idaho wildlife officials prepare to resume hunts for the predators after Congress removed their endangered species protections.
Montana State Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners are due to meet July 14 to adopt a quota of 220 wolves to be killed during fall rifle and archery hunts.
Idaho's hunt is scheduled for adoption in late July. Final details still are being worked out.
More than 450 people submitted comments on the Montana proposal in recent weeks. They ranged from calls to sharply increase the quota and allow trapping and poisoning of wolves, to pleas for a less-aggressive approach so the wolf population could further expand.
There were an estimated 566 wolves in Montana at the end of 2010. Once this year's pups are factored in, wildlife officials say the fall hunt will reduce the number by 25 percent to approximately 425 wolves.
Dozens of individuals and livestock and hunting groups said the proposed quota was too low. They warned that the predators' population would quickly rebound, leading to more attacks on cattle and sheep and further reductions in elk herds that are pursued by wolves and hunters alike.
"This vicious cycle will continue to allow too many wolves to prey on our remaining, already low (deer and elk) populations," said Patrick Byrne of Anaconda.
But others said a large wolf population is needed to restore balance to the natural landscape by cutting down on overgrazing by elk and culling sick and weak animals from big game herds.
Norman Bishop of Bozeman suggested the Northern Rockies region could support up to ten times more wolves than the current population of 1,651 in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.
"Let the wolves perform their keystone role in ecosystem recovery," Bishop wrote.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said the state had tried to strike a balance between conserving wolves and controlling their numbers to address attacks on livestock and big game. He added that would mean reductions in wolf populations in some areas.
Out of more than 240 people who submitted original comments either by letter or e-mail, roughly two-thirds were in favor of the hunt or wanted it expanded, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. The remaining one-third wanted the hunt cancelled or urged restraint in the setting of quotas.
A mass email campaign generated by Defenders of Wildlife generated 215 comments in opposition.
Responses came from as far away as South Africa and the United Kingdom, with some of the most extreme comments from outside the region.
A commenter who signed an email as "Barry from California" referred to wolves as "hounds of hell" and said their reintroduction was instigated by subversives bent on "destroying our nation."
Barbara Laxson of Mansfield, Texas, decried the "senseless killing of God's creation."
"What are you crazies doing up there in the beautiful state of Montana?" Laxson wrote.
There were just a few dozen wolves in Montana when the federal government began reintroducing wolves from Canada to the Northern Rockies in 1995.
Environmentalists used lawsuits to keep the animals on the endangered list for a decade after the population reached the government's recovery target of 300 wolves across the region.
In April, Western lawmakers inserted a rider into the federal budget bill that lifted the animal's Endangered Species Act protections. It was the first time Congress had circumvented the law. The action drew more lawsuits from environmentalists that are now pending before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula.
Plaintiffs contend the Congressional rider violated the constitution because it was crafted specifically to undermine Molloy's earlier rulings on wolves. It's uncertain when Molloy will act on the latest suits, which potentially could lead to the cancellation of this fall's hunts.
Molloy three times rebuffed the government's prior efforts to lift protections for the species. He allowed a hunt to take place two years ago while one of the earlier lawsuits was pending.
Hunters killed 72 wolves in Montana in 2009 and 188 in Idaho. Idaho's season was extended to March 31, 2010 but hunters still fell short of reaching a 220 wolf quota.
Idaho wildlife officials will present their 2011 hunt proposal in the next few weeks. Adoption of season regulations and quotas will come at the state game commission's July 27-28 meeting, said Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Unsworth.
Unsworth said his agency, too, is hearing strong views on the hunt from the public — opinions that he said grew more extreme during the protracted legal battle over their endangered status.
"The anxiety dropped an incredible amount in 2009 when we had a season and I expect that to occur again," he said. "But there's some people that try to keep the debate going as long as they can."