HELENA – The number of wolves in Montana increased by 15 percent to at least 653 animals despite the state’s efforts to reduce the population with an extended hunting season, state wildlife officials said Wednesday.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks officials said 87 more wolves were counted at the end of 2011 than were in the state a year before. There were 130 verified packs and 39 breeding pairs counted, also increases from 2010 numbers.
Ranchers concerned about wolves attacking their livestock and hunters who blame wolves for a decline big game say that’s way too many predators and the population must be reduced.
FWP authorized a quota of 220 wolves in the first hunt since Congress passed legislation last year removing endangered species protections for the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains except for Wyoming. That state’s policy was considered harmful to the species’ survival.
FWP had aimed to reduce Montana’s wolf population to 425 animals with the hunting season. But only 165 wolves were killed, or 75 percent of the quota, despite the end of the hunting season being extended from the end of December to mid-February.
Also, fewer wolves were killed last year by wildlife officials responding to livestock predation complaints than in 2010, FWP said.
Montana still aims to reduce the number of wolves and will examine additional ways to do so, director Joe Maurier said in a statement.
Those options could include allowing hunters to kill more than one wolf, purchase more than one hunting license, or use electronic calls, he said. Officials could also allow trapping, increase the quota or extend the hunting season.
Some of the changes would require approval of the FWP commission, while others would need a change in state law.
“We’re committed to using our authority to responsibly manage Montana’s wolf population while addressing conflicts with livestock and other wildlife populations,” Maurier said. “We’re also committed to allowing hunters, who are showing a real interest in pursuing wolves, to become even more involved in Montana’s approach to wolf management.”
The recovery goal for wolves across the northern Rocky Mountains was set at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs and minimum of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years, a mark achieved in 2002.
Montana’s wolf plan sets a minimum of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves. Conservation groups have criticized Montana and Idaho’s wolf plans, saying both set the minimum too low for a sustainable, interconnected population.
Those groups filed lawsuits challenging the U.S. government’s removal of wolves from the endangered species list, and U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy had blocked removal of wolf protections until last May.
That’s when Congress passed legislation delisting the wolves and turning management of the animal over to Idaho and Montana, allowing those states to hold hunts.
Idaho hunters have shot 237 wolves and have trapped 97 more as of Wednesday, according to the Idaho Fish and Game website.