Montana is down to a mostly single-species hunting season as game managers consider how to fill the state's 220-wolf quota by the end of 2011.
Hunters had killed 105 wolves statewide as of Monday and reached local quotas in some areas, including the southeastern third of the state and one northwestern Montana hunting district.
But they've been less successful elsewhere, especially in the Bitterroot Valley - where wolves have been blamed for reducing elk and deer populations.
Only wolf hunting district 130 between the Mission Mountains and Glacier National Park has closed, after reaching its 12-animal limit on Sunday. That includes parts of Missoula, Lake and Flathead counties.
Now discussion has moved to a possible extension of the wolf season.
"It's a stretch to think we're going to take 116 wolves between now and the end of December," Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said on Monday. "We didn't take that many in a five-week season with 150,000 hunters out there, with 17,700 wolf licenses as of this morning."
That's prompted the FWP Board of Commissioners to consider extending the wolf season into 2012 at their monthly meeting starting Thursday. Aasheim said the commissioners might also discuss the possibility of a wolf trapping season, but that isn't on the formal agenda.
Idaho Fish and Game Department spokesman Niels Nokkentved said his state has seen a similar harvest this fall, despite having no upper quota and a trapping season. As of Monday, just one wolf had been trapped in the Panhandle part of the state, while 148 had been taken in the rifle season. Idaho has no upper limit on wolf kills.
"It seems to have slowed down some," Nokkentved said. "Our commissioners are considering revisiting the season dates in January, and might open additional units for trapping."
Most parts of Idaho allow wolf hunting through March 15, except for two wilderness districts along the Montana border. Those areas let the wolf season overlap with spring black bear hunting, which runs through June 30.
Idaho hunters have taken 19 wolves in the three hunting districts along Montana's western border where wolves appear to have had the greatest impact on elk herds. But on the three districts encompassing Mineral, Ravalli and Beaverhead counties, Montana hunters have only killed 21 out of a possible 74 quota.
"No one's an expert wolf hunter yet, but there's a seriousness to what they're doing," said FWP biologist Craig Jourdonnais, who supervises the Bitterroot region. "A lot of guys are trying to build their knowledge. And right behind that, it's an excuse for them to get back out in the field and enjoy the outdoors for another month."
Jourdonnais said he'd been getting lots of phone calls from hunters elsewhere in the state seeking hunting tips to use on a trip to the Bitterroots.
"It's shades of elk season - and an excuse for people to come and check out some new country," he said. "It's a new experience and people want to take advantage of it."
Montana's general hunting season ended Nov. 27. While most deer and elk have finished their breeding for the year, wolves are just beginning to spread out in advance of their February breeding period.
"This is peak dispersal time," FWP wolf biologist Liz Bradley said. "Packs are traveling a lot, running their territory boundaries. They're on the move, so where they are one day doesn't necessarily mean they'll be there the next, unless they're on a kill. If it's an elk, they may be there two or three days."
Bradley said despite some viral Internet photos of hunters posing with apparently huge wolf carcasses, Montana wolves inspected this year have remained in the 80- to 120-pound range. The average wolf recorded in Idaho was 105 pounds.
"The animals are really furred up at this time of year, which makes them look bigger," Bradley said. "It's easy to overestimate weight in a photo. There's breeds of domestic dogs that get larger."
Montana hunters must report their kills within 12 hours and present the head and pelt of any legally killed wolf to FWP officials within 10 days if they wish to keep the parts. Of the 105 wolves killed to date, biologists have been able to weigh complete carcasses of 19. They've recorded an average weight this year of 88.9 pounds, with the largest weighing 115 pounds. Only five wolves checked have weighed 100 pounds or more.