The trial run was interesting but inconclusive. The real Montana wolf hunt begins this Sunday, and a lot rides on its results.

Ranchers, hunters, wolf advocates and wolf biologists all want to see how effective citizen hunters can be against the state's newest predator. Whether Montana's quota of 75 wolves is met or missed, the 2009 hunting season will be an important piece of evidence in the federal lawsuit over the predator's endangered species status.

"A big question everybody had was: Will it be just like Alaska and Canada" where wolf hunting has low success? wondered Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wolf program coordinator Carolyn Sime. "Here, Montanans know the field and know their hunting areas, and will be present where wolves are. We have a lot more to learn."

Sime wants to know if hunters can be as effective as state and federal damage control officers in keeping wolf populations in check. Ranchers want to know if the hunt will discourage wolves from attacking domestic livestock. Hunters want to know if wolves are truly cutting into their big-game opportunities, and if they can push back. And wolf advocates wonder if the hunt will set back their hopes for a Montana landscape with all its natural wildlife intact.

"Nobody has the right to sterilize the landscape of everything they don't like, and wolves are part of this landscape," said Defenders of Wildlife Rocky Mountain Region director Michael Leahy. "It's not a matter of the federal government imposing wolves on the region and not incorporating the rancher's opinions or the hunter's opinions. The states and the federal government are obligated to bring them back, and we have to figure out once again how to live with wolves."

Defenders of Wildlife is one of several conservation groups that sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its plan to remove gray wolves from federal Endangered Species Act protection. Government wolf managers say Montana, Idaho and Wyoming need a population of at least 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs. The area now has at least five times that number. The conservation groups argue there must be between 2,000 and 5,000 wolves intermingling across state lines before the population can be considered recovered.

There were an estimated 1,645 wolves in the three-state area at the start of 2009. That includes about 500 in Montana, up from 92 in 2000. Montana had at least 34 breeding pairs.

In those nine years, state and federal managers killed 386 wolves in Montana. Management plans assume about 30 percent of a year's population won't survive, because of natural causes, disease, livestock depredation killings or hunting. Sime observed that wolf advocates often only count the wolves killed, while wolf haters only count wolves born.

On Oct. 13, federal shooters killed one wolf and were authorized to take two more in the Smart Creek area after livestock conflicts. Gold Creek rancher John Hollenbeck has lived near there for 50 years, and said he looked forward to more active management of wolf populations.

"The deer number in the last two years is almost scary - it's gone down immensely," Hollenbeck said. "I attribute that to the wolf and the mountain lions. The elk, I can't tell, they move in and out so much."

Hollenbeck has his 3,400 acres in the Fish, Wildlife and Parks block management hunting program, and said most of the hunters who've sought permission from him this year are carrying wolf tags.

"I don't think we're going to get an overkill, and I don't think we're going to get as much kill as we need," Hollenbeck said. "In my younger days, they were so tough to get rid of, they put bounties on them. They finally ended up poisoning them. They're a tough animal to hunt."

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