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State suspends wolf hunting near Yellowstone Park
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State suspends wolf hunting near Yellowstone Park

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HELENA - The backcountry wolf hunt in Montana just north of Yellowstone National Park will be halted half an hour past sunset Friday by order of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Even though the quota of 12 wolves in hunting district 316 hasn't been met, nine have been harvested so far, and state officials fear the quota would have been filled by the time the general hunting season starts on Oct. 25 had the hunt continued. That would mean hunters would only take wolves from the backcountry, instead of near ranches where they might have been preying on livestock.

"We don't want to kill the wilderness wolves and the wolves that don't need some education, (we want to go after) those on the ranch land," FWP Commissioner Ron Moody said Thursday. "I want to ensure sufficient opportunity to be available during the general season."

FWP will reopen the backcountry area and most of the rest of Montana to wolf hunting when the general rifle season begins Oct. 25. Wolf hunting is still allowed in backcountry districts near the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas; two wolves have been taken there.

The commission plans to hold a conference call Tuesday to discuss whether to increase the quota in wolf management unit 3, which includes district 316 and most of southern Montana. To do that, the commission would have to lower the quotas in one or both of the other management units to keep the total statewide quota at 75 wolves.

WMU 3 runs across the southern tier of Montana from Dillon east to the Montana border, and the backcountry hunt is in district 316, in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness north of Cooke City and east of Gardiner. WMU 1 generally extends across Montana north of Interstate 90, with a quota of 41 wolves. WMU 2 is a small patch of southwestern Montana stretching from Missoula south through the Bitterroot and Upper Big Hole valleys, with a quota of 22.

"We support this closure immediately. Close it as quickly as you can, but at the same time we should go ahead and take five or seven or whatever and immediately start the process of transferring (those quotas) down there (to WMU 3) for the general big-game season," Commissioner Willy Doll said Thursday. "Because if you're going to get nine of them and possibly the other three (Thursday), we feel it's a little unfair to the other hunters coming in if that area is closed."

But FWP attorney Bob Lane warned that the state is facing a delicate balancing act if it tries to tweak the quotas now, especially in light of ongoing litigation over the removal of gray wolves in Montana and Idaho from the list of animals protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

He noted that the state placed the quota low in WMU 3 to show it was responsive to the need for genetic diversity among the wolf population, and this is an area where Yellowstone National Park wolves can move into Montana, and vice versa. That type of "connectivity" is an essential component of the wolf reintroduction.

"The worst thing we could possibly do is to somehow make a (quota) shift into WMU 3 that would upset our ability to have a hunt in WMU 1 and 2," Commissioner Dan Vermillion said. "The last thing we want is to have the plaintiffs go back to Judge (Donald) Molloy on Monday, say 'Look what they did' and stop the hunt. I think we should be as cautious as possible."

Lane noted that if the commission is going to shift the quotas, it must be done through a public process, including a comment period. He added that in his opinion, the Montana Constitution says they have to give the public a "reasonable" opportunity to comment, but doesn't set out any time requirements.

If hunters overshoot the quota in WMU 3, the commission would have to reduce the number of wolves that can be shot in the other two management units to retain the state's 75-wolf limit.

The state set the 75-wolf ceiling based on scientific models showing that at the current birth and death rates, including wolves shot for preying on livestock, the adopted quota shouldn't significantly lower the number of wolves in Montana and the population may continue to grow. Idaho, whose wolf hunting season is in full swing, has a quota of 220 wolves, and as of Thursday 32 have been shot.

Montana is home to about 500 wolves, with at least another 850 in Idaho and about 300 in Wyoming. They remain listed as endangered species in Wyoming, so hunting isn't allowed.

Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at (406) 447-4076 or at eve.byron@helenair.com.

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