HELENA - The wolf population in the Northern Rockies rose last year, but at the slowest rate in nearly 15 years, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
There were a minimum of 1,706 wolves inhabiting Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and parts of Oregon and Washington state in 2009, compared with at least 1,650 wolves the year before. The number of breeding packs increased from 95 to 115.
The population estimates are included in the 2009 Interagency Annual Wolf Report, compiled by state and federal governments and Native American tribes.
The report attributed agency control, new hunting seasons in Montana and Idaho and the wolves' territorial behavior in slowing the population growth to less than 4 percent last year, the lowest growth rate since 1995.
Until 2009, the wolf population had been on a sharp upward trend, at times increasing 30 percent in a single year.
Federal and state governments say wolves are doing fine since losing Endangered Species Act protections last year. The exception is Wyoming, where state law is considered hostile to the species' survival and federal protections remain in force.
Environmentalists have filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the loss of protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho. They say population figures are not a good indicator of the animal's long-term survival.
Hunters killed 72 wolves in Montana last year, while wildlife agents killed another 145, according to the report. In Idaho, hunters killed 134 wolves and wildlife officials killed 93. In Wyoming, wildlife agents killed 32 wolves.
There were at least 525 wolves in Montana in 2009, according to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The report estimates that at least 843 wolves inhabited Idaho, and 320 wolves were in Wyoming. Five wolves were counted in eastern Washington, and they numbered 14 in eastern Oregon.
Wolves killed 192 cattle across the region in 2009, down from 214 the year before, according to the report. Sheep killed by wolves rose from 355 to 721.