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Montana's wolf hunting quota could more than double for the 2010 hunting season under a proposal released Friday, and may include an archery season.

Wolf managers are asking the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to consider overall harvest rates next year of 186 or 216 wolves, compared to last year's quota of 75 wolves in three management units. The commission can adopt either recommendation, go for something in between, or set a lower or higher quota.

Also new this year would be the creation of 14 subunits within the three wolf management units, as part of an effort to better focus hunting success in areas where wolves may be preying on livestock.

Under the new plan, northwestern Montana would have nine wolf management units with a total quota of 122 or 133 wolves; western Montana would have two management units with a total quota of 26 or 31 wolves; and the three proposed management units in the southwestern portion of the state would have a total quota of 38 or 52 wolves. Eastern Montana is included in two of the three hunting units.

"We've learned a lot over the past year and our proposals for 2010 reflect a rigorous, science-based effort to manage the total number of wolves that can be taken by hunters while maintaining a balance among all wildlife, their habitats and the people who live here," said Ken McDonald, FWP's chief of wildlife. "That balance will include managing for a recovered wolf population while addressing livestock depredation and impacts to other wildlife.

"It's our responsibility to address the fact that more than 200 sheep and about 100 head of cattle were killed by wolves last year, and that wolves have depressed deer and elk populations in some areas."

Currently, Montana is home to at least 524 wolves in 101 verified packs.

McDonald said a harvest quota of 186 wolves probably would reduce the wolf population by about 13 percent, to about 439 wolves living in packs at the end of 2010.

A harvest quota of 216 is projected to reduce the wolf population to 403 wolves living in packs, or by about 20 percent. The projections include anticipated reductions due to livestock depredation and mortalities from other causes, such as accidents and natural causes.

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FWP director Joe Maurier acknowledged during a legislative Environmental Quality Council meeting at the Capitol Friday that without the hunt, the wolf population could reach upward of 700 animals by the end of the year in Montana alone. He added that based on what he's seen so far, that's more than the public will tolerate.

"We've said all along that we need to balance wolves. They're here to stay and we know they cause problems, which is why we have to strike a balance," Maurier said. "We haven't looked at any firm numbers as an upper limit or lower, other than what was established through the Endangered Species Act limit.

"We only have one year of experiences, so we'll continue to search and learn."

Maurier said the quota was set to take into account wolves killed for preying on livestock.

McDonald noted that the proposed harvest alternatives carry specific tradeoffs.

"We believe both options are in line with our wildlife management responsibilities," he said. "The lower quota of 186 wolves moves us at a slower management pace, while a quota of 216 wolves allows us to move a bit more rapidly to address the wildlife and livestock depredation issues that are occurring. In both cases, we know these quotas are conservative and in line with what we think will be viewed as reasonable proposals. We need to hear how the commission and public feel about the pace and the associated tradeoffs."

The public will have an opportunity to comment on any proposal approved by the commission. Statewide meetings to discuss the proposals will be held June 2. The public comment period is expected to run through June 14. A final decision on the wolf season and quota is set for July 8.

The FWP Commission will meet May 13 in the Old Supreme Court Chambers on the third floor of the Montana State Capitol, beginning at 8:30 a.m.

The wolf hunting season dates would correspond to Montana's early backcountry big-game hunting season, which runs Sept. 4 through Sept. 14 for archery and Sept. 15 through Nov. 28 for rifle hunting; and the general big-game archery season, which runs Sept. 4 through Oct. 17; and the general rifle season of Oct. 23 through Nov. 28. However, if the quota isn't filled, the wolf season could run until Dec. 31.

Wolf hunting licenses will cost $19 for residents and $350 for non-residents, with sales beginning in August. Last year, almost 9,000 licenses were sold, raising about $300,000 in revenue.

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Officials caution that the wolf hunting season could be blocked by a lawsuit winding its way through the federal court system. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula will hear oral arguments on June 15 as to whether gray wolves should be returned to the endangered species list. That would mean a return to federal management, which doesn't include a hunting season.

"The most important thing for the state and management of the wolves is to keep them off the list," Maurier said.

The crux of the lawsuit, which Earthjustice filed on behalf of 13 conservation and environmental groups, is whether wolves can be delisted in Montana and Idaho, yet remain protected in Wyoming. The federal government had included all three states in its initial delisting attempt, but the conservation groups sued, and Molloy ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily because the agency lacked evidence regarding the animals' genetic diversity.

The government withdrew the delisting decision, but reissued it later including only Montana and Idaho, leading to the current lawsuit. Wolves remain protected in Wyoming because the state's management plan classified them as predators that could be shot on sight throughout most of the state, which the federal government decided didn't afford them enough protection to keep the population intact.

Currently, about 1,700 gray wolves roam throughout the northern Rockies, surpassing the recovery goal of 300 individual wolves for at least three consecutive years. Their population growth, however, is slowing down and more are being shot for preying on livestock each year.

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

 

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