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Montana FWP tentatively approves 220-wolf quota for fall hunt

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HELENA - Montana wildlife officials tentatively approved a plan Thursday to allow hunters to kill as many as 220 wolves this fall, marking the state's first wolf management decision since Congress lifted endangered species protections.

The unanimous vote opens the door for the public to weigh in before the commission makes a final decision in July. It would be Montana's second wolf hunt since 2009, when 72 wolves were killed, and state Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners appeared confident the 2011 hunt will be approved.

"This looks like the second time we'll actually be able to get it to the finish line and have a hunt," FWP commissioner Dan Vermillion said.

A provision to lift federal protections from wolves in the Northern Rockies was included in a budget bill passed by Congress in April. The exception is Wyoming, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has kept endangered species protections in place because the state's management plan is considered a threat to the species' survival.

Officials also are preparing for a wolf hunt in Idaho, where there are an estimated 705 wolves.

There are now at least 566 wolves in Montana. A hunt with a quota of 220 wolves would reduce the state's population by about 25 percent, dropping it to a minimum of 425 wolves, according to state wildlife officials' models.

The models factor in new births, natural deaths, human kills and the departure and arrival of wolves to and from other areas.

A competing model estimates the decline would be less, just a 7 percent drop to 526 wolves.

The two population models predict that without a hunt, Montana's wolf population will grow to a minimum of 632 and 647, respectively.

The states' management plan says 150 wolves with 15 breeding plans are needed to sustain the species in Montana. Conservation groups dispute that number, saying it should be higher.

Ranchers and hunters for years have complained that the wolf population has grown too large, with wolves preying on their livestock and the deer and elk they hunt. On Thursday, they said they were happy to have wolf management decisions out of federal hands and back with the state.

"It's about time," said Steve Kamps of the Montana Bowhunters Association. But, he added, "We don't think 220 is enough."

Conservationists and others urged the commission to either forego a hunt or reduce the quota to ensure the population doesn't decline too rapidly. They said the models wildlife officials cited understate the effect of a wolf hunt on the overall population.

"This proposal of 220 wolves is almost 40 percent and I do not believe that is a sustainable kill," Helena resident Mary Fay said.

The public can comment on the proposed hunt until June 20. The commission makes a final decision at its July 14 meeting.

If approved, wildlife officials will start issuing licenses in August. An archery hunt would last from Sept. 3 to Oct. 16.

A rifle hunt would begin on Oct. 22, ending when the quota is filled or on Dec. 31.

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