BILLINGS — Gray wolf hunts are under way in Montana and Idaho as state officials seek to sharply reduce the predator's numbers in hopes of curbing attacks on livestock and big game herds.
Montana's hunt kicked off at sunrise Saturday with a six-week, archery-only wolf season. A general wolf hunting season opens Oct. 22 and runs through the end of the year.
Montana wildlife officials have set a statewide harvest quota of 220 wolves, which would reduce the state's population to a projected 425 animals.
Idaho's hunt began Tuesday. There is no quota across most of Idaho and hunting is scheduled to run through June 1 in some areas.
Wildlife advocates failed in their bid to get a federal court injunction barring the hunts, which became possible after gray wolves in five states lost their federal protections this spring under an act of Congress.
License sales are down in both states compared to hunts in 2009. That could undermine the states' goal of killing enough wolves to reduce attacks on cows, sheep and big game such as elk and moose.
But officials said they expect sales to pick up as the hunting season goes on. Also, wildlife commissioners from the two states adopted changes this year meant to target wolves where predation has been the biggest problem.
"We're trying to be more surgical and distribute the harvest," said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim.
The 2009 wolf seasons marked the first time the animals had been subject to organized public hunting in the Lower 48 states since they were nearly exterminated in the 1930s.
Wyoming briefly allowed the animals to be shot on sight in 2008. The state's 343 wolves have since been returned to the endangered species list because Wyoming's wolf management law was considered too hostile.
Many of the 72 wolves killed in Montana in 2009 were taken in remote backcountry locations where livestock attacks are infrequent. That meant fewer wolves could be killed in the more populated, agricultural areas where problems with wolves have been more common.
For this year's wolf season, state officials divvied up the quota among 14 hunting units, versus just three in 2009.
Idaho hunters in 2009 failed to reach the state's 220 wolf quota even after the season was extended by several months. This year, commissioners set no limit on the number of wolves that can be killed in most parts of the state.
The move sparked criticism from wildlife advocates who said wolf populations could be decimated without quotas.
Idaho officials counter that they can call off the hunt if wolf numbers get too low, although no minimum number has been offered. Idaho had at least 705 wolves at the end of 2010 and state officials say there could be more than 1,000.
"If you believe the rhetoric, we would have already wiped out half our wolves by yesterday," said Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Unsworth. "It's just not going to happen that way. We're not rookies at managing hunters and hunter harvests."
Wolf management actions by the states will be monitored for five years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under terms of the animal's removal from the endangered species list. If wolf numbers tumble, federal protections could be restored.
Protections also could be restored if state laws or policies change in a way that "significantly increases the threat to the wolf population" said Seth Wiley, a recovery specialist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
But Wiley said his agency was confident both Montana and Idaho would maintain enough wolves to keep them off the endangered list. Agency officials already determined Idaho's decision to largely forego quotas did not meet the benchmark for revoking state authority.
A lawsuit from wildlife advocates challenging the transfer of authority over wolves to the states remains pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court last month rejected an injunction that was sought to block the hunts. But the decision left unresolved whether Congress had violated the Constitution when it inserted an unprecedented provision into a budget bill rider this spring that excluded wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Oral arguments are expected in November. It could be months more before a final decision.