Wolf quota eyed after nine shot near park

Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2009

BILLINGS, Mont. - Wildlife officials in Montana will consider changes to the state's inaugural wolf hunt after nine of the predators were shot in just three weeks along the border of Yellowstone National Park.

More than 1,300 gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana this spring following a costly federal restoration effort.

Hunting has been promoted as a way to keep the population of the fast-breeding species in check and reduce wolf attacks on livestock. Hunters in the two states have killed at least 48 wolves since Sept. 1.

However, all but two of the 11 wolves killed in Montana came from a small portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, along the northern border of Yellowstone. And at least four were from Yellowstone's Cottonwood Pack, including the group's breeding female.

Concerned about the heavily concentrated killing, state wildlife commissioners last week suspended hunting in the area.

Today, commissioners will consider a range of additional responses, from reallocating the season quota of 75 wolves to shutting down the hunting season in part of the state.

"We've missed the mark a little this first year," said Carolyn Sime, lead wolf biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Shooting a wolf, particularly in some of the sparsely vegetated terrain around Yellowstone, proved easier than expected, she said.

The Absaroka-Beartooth was one of two remote "backcountry" areas of Montana where wolf hunting was allowed before the statewide season opening, set for Oct. 25.

Grazing is generally not allowed in the backcountry. That means the harvest of wolves there gives little help to ranchers suffering losses from wolf attacks. In addition, critics said the shootings could choke off the flow of young wolves leaving Yellowstone to establish packs outside the park.

"Yellowstone can't be a source for wolves to colonize other areas if they get blown away right at the boundary," said Norman Bishop, a former Yellowstone park ranger now on the board of the Wolf Recovery Foundation, an Idaho-based advocacy group.

Sime said that with wolves firmly established in many areas of Montana, Yellowstone's importance as a source of wolves had diminished.

There were 89 packs in Montana at the end of 2008, including 18 in the part of the state that borders Yellowstone.

"From a biological perspective, it's a non-issue," Sime said, noting the death of nine wolves was unlikely to hurt the overall population.

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