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Wolf protections lifted; Idaho, Montana plan hunts this fall

The Obama administration on Wednesday moved to lift Endangered Species Act protections for 5,500 gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes, drawing the line on the predators’ rapid expansion over the past two decades.

Public hunts for hundreds of wolves already are planned this fall in Idaho and Montana.

In July, Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission will determine how many of the state’s wolves can be killed by hunters. Trapping of wolves will probably be allowed as well, said Virgil Moore, the state’s Fish and Game director

Moore said the commission will review previously set goals of reducing Idaho’s estimated 705 wolves to about 500. But whatever population target is picked, Idaho will manage its wolves to ensure that at least 150 remain in the state, he said.

“Wolves are here to stay. They’re part of the landscape. Whether or not you agree with how they got here, they’re wards of the state,” Moore said. “We will avoid any actions that would allow them to be back listed.”

Conservationists have hailed the animal’s recovery from near extinction last century as a landmark achievement – one that should be extended to the Pacific Northwest and New England.

But the federal wolf program has stirred a backlash from agriculture and sporting groups angry over wolf attacks on livestock and big-game herds. Interior Department officials said Wednesday that the most suitable wolf habitat already was occupied. No further introductions of the species are planned.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials also said they plan to review the gray wolf’s status in the Pacific Northwest.

Wolves in the eastern third of Washington and Oregon are part of the Northern Rockies population that is no longer federally protected. The review will determine whether wolves in central and western Washington and Oregon continue to merit protection. One wolf pack has been confirmed in Washington’s Methow Valley, and wolf sightings have been reported in the Oregon Cascades and Klamath Basin.

Western lawmakers attached a rider to the federal budget bill mandating the move to lift protections for 1,300 wolves in the Northern Rockies. The rider, which barred any courtroom challenges, marked the first time Congress has removed an animal listed under the Endangered Species Act. About 4,200 wolves listed as threatened in the western Great Lakes also are slated to lose protections, which could happen by the end of this year.

Royce Schwenkfelder, a rancher whose family arrived in the western Idaho town of Cambridge in the 1880s, said he feels more comfortable with wolves under state jurisdiction. But he was doubtful that wolves could be reduced to levels that will eliminate attacks on his cattle. “The feds have filled us up with more wolves than we can handle,” Schwenkfelder said.

Moore said that reports of livestock predation dropped following Idaho’s first wolf hunt in fall 2009. With consistent hunting seasons, declines in livestock predation should continue, he said.

Prices for Idaho wolf tags will remain unchanged at $11.50.

In addition to the public hunts, Idaho Fish and Game is moving ahead with plans for wildlife agents to cull wolves in north-central Idaho’s Lolo Zone, where the department wants to reduce wolf predation on struggling elk herds. Acting this spring will give elk calves better chances of survival, Moore said.

Montana wildlife officials have proposed a public hunt for up to 220 wolves this fall, out of a population estimated to number at least 566 animals. No hunts are planned immediately for small populations of wolves in Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Wednesday’s announcement leaves the fate of about 340 wolves in Wyoming unresolved. Wyoming was carved out of attempts to restore state control over wolves because of a state law that would allow the animals to be shot on sight in most of the state.

Associated Press writers Matthew Brown and John Miller and staff writer Becky Kramer contributed to this report.