HELENA - Montana hunters will be able to kill more than twice as many wolves in the upcoming hunting season as were allowed last year.
The five-member state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission decided unanimously on Thursday morning to increase the number of wolf tags for the 2010 hunting season to 186, up from 75 last year. Of that number, 111 wolves would be killed in northwestern Montana.
However, commissioners stipulated that the quota could be reduced if the number of wolves killed before hunting season begins continues to increase.
This fall marks Montana's second hunting season after wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list in Montana and Idaho. Wolves remain on the list in Wyoming.
The issue touched a nerve among some Montana hunters and wolf defenders. The commission received more than 1,500 comments regarding the hunt and Thursday's meeting played to a packed house.
The commission's decision seemed to leave some on both sides feeling unsatisfied.
Steve Wilson, a hunter from Victor who attended the meeting, said he thinks the commission should have allowed many more wolf tags, enough to reduce Montana's wolf population to 150 animals.
Montana was estimated to have more than 500 wolves at the end of last year's season.
"This is as good as we're going to get right now," he told reporters after the meeting.
Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate from the Natural Resources Defense Council's Livingston office, told commissioners he thought any hunt was premature.
"The viability of the northern Rockies wolf population is not ensured," he said after the meeting.
However, Skoglund praised the commission for its thoughtful attention to all sides.
Some of the comments the commission received on the topic were "disgusting," said Commissioner Shane Colton of Billings.
Many commissioners spoke about how misinformation and angry rhetoric seemed to infuse the comments, making a reasoned debate impossible.
Commissioner Ron Moody of Lewistown described many of the comments as expressing a "narrow, culturally bigoted point of view which expresses an inflexible ideological" contempt for people with other viewpoints.
McDonald said agency officials decided on the 186 number after weighing the impact of wolves on elk and livestock as well as the concern that if too many wolves are hunted or killed, the species could again be listed as endangered, stripping the state of its management abilities.
The current target would leave between 411 and 488 wolves in Montana at the end of the year.
The commission also agreed to take a certain number of wolves in various regions. Specifically, northwest Montana would see 111 wolves taken, western Montana would see 34 and southwest Montana would see 41.
The discussion of Montana's wolf season continues even as U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is debating relisting the species in response to a lawsuit brought by Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based group. Molloy has promised to make his final decision soon.
In light of that, commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the sale of wolf tags until Aug. 23, two weeks after other hunting tags become available. They did so, Colton said, to allow for the possibility that Molloy may not have a decision by early August.
Commissioners also voted that if a person buys a wolf tag, he or she will not receive a refund should Molloy rule to add wolves to the endangered species list, thereby ending Montana's hunt.
Last year, more than 15,000 wolf tags were sold, figures show. Tags cost $19 for a resident and $350 for a nonresident.
Reporter Jennifer McKee can be reached at (406) 447-4069 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.