The federal government on Monday recommended approval of a state-led wolf hunt in the West Fork of the Bitterroot, where elk populations have plummeted.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft environmental assessment of the state's Rule 10(J) request to shoot as many as 18 of the estimated 30 wolves in the West Fork pack.

"We don't call it a hunt," Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Shawn Sartorius said on Monday. "There is a situation where (Montana) Fish, Wildlife and Parks could utilize citizens as designated agents of the state. But it would be much more controlled than a hunting situation."

The assessment considered both killing wolves and leaving them alone as possible options. A final decision will be made after public comment closes April 12. Idaho has also applied for a 10(J) hunt for wolves on its side of the Bitterroot Mountains, and is also waiting for a final decision.

Wolves are believed responsible for decimating the West Fork's elk population from between 1,600 and 2,400 animals to a current "management goal" of 764.

FWP has tried to help the West Fork elk by increasing the hunting pressure on black bears and mountain lions, habitat improvement and reductions in elk hunting permits. But a wolf hunt is also needed, state officials say.

"It's going to be really interesting to find out what makes the difference - why we see what we see in the West Fork," FWP wildlife manager Mike Thompson. "We want to learn what it is about the West Fork that makes it more vulnerable. We have wolves in both the East Fork and the West Fork. Is it just a matter of time? What other factors might be in play? The Bitterroot elk study will look at those differences, too."

If approved, the West Fork hunt would probably take place this fall, at the same time as the regular big-game hunting season. Thompson said it could be managed similar to a game damage hunt, where volunteer hunters would put their name on a list and be called to action as needed.

However, participants in a 10(J) hunt would not be allowed to keep the pelts or any other parts of the wolves they killed. The project would be closely monitored to ensure that at least 12 wolves remained in the pack. Hunters would not be allowed to use airplanes, poison or other pest-control tactics.

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"The process has taken longer than we hoped," said Tony Jones, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Game Association and an advocate for the 10(J) hunt. "The fact we're making headway in one of the hardest-hit districts in the state, as far as elk and elk calves goes, is good news."

The Bitterroot was a productive area for wolf hunting in Montana's first public wolf season in 2009. But wolves were returned to endangered species protection last August, after U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the wide-ranging Rocky Mountain gray wolves couldn't be hunted in Montana and Idaho while they were still federally protected in Wyoming.

Montana officials requested permission for a Rule 10(J) wolf hunt last Nov. 24. The Endangered Species Act allows 10(J) hunts of threatened or endangered species when they are causing unacceptable harm to other wild animal populations. However, the hunt may not lower the state's wolf population below a total of 200 wolves and 20 breeding pairs.

And it can only apply to so-called "experimental" populations. Wolves descended from the animals reintroduced around Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s are considered in that category. In Montana, wolves north of U.S. Highway 12 and Interstate 90 are considered naturally occurring arrivals from Canada and have greater protection.

Wolf advocates argue that the southern wolves have mingled with natural populations in northern Montana to the point where no wolves can be considered experimental. That's led a coalition of environmental groups to challenge the legality of 10(J) hunts in federal court.

Last week, Molloy heard almost two hours of testimony about how to determine the wolves' status.

The judge is also considering a proposed settlement between some of those groups and the federal government that would return Montana and Idaho wolves to state management. That would make the 10(J) hunt unnecessary, because state public hunts would be legal again.

The draft environmental assessment as well as Montana's plan and public comments can be found at www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/wolf/.

Written comments can be submitted online at www.regulations.gov or mailed to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2011-0022; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222; Arlington, VA 22203.

The deadline for comments is April 12.

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