ENDANGERED SPECIES -- Just out in an Associted Press story from Billings: Federal officials today signaled their preliminary support for a plan to kill gray wolves in western Montana that have preyed on big game herds along the Idaho border.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a draft environmental review of a Montana proposal to kill 18 of an estimated 30 wolves along the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. That would include the elimination of between one and three packs in the area.
A similar petition from Idaho remains pending.
Read on for the rest of the AP story.
Wildlife advocates have challenged the states’ plans in court. A proposed settlement in a related case would lift federal protections for wolves and render the challenge moot.
A final decision will follow a 14-day public comment period, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Shawn Sartorius. He did not have any further timeline for action.
"On the face of it, it appears to meet the requirements we made," Sartorius said of Montana’s plan. However, he added that officials could alter their initial inclination to approve the plan based on the public comments received.
Montana wildlife officials say elk populations along the West Fork have suffered due to increasing wolf numbers. Other measures to boost elk numbers have not worked, including more hunting of other predators such as black bears and mountain lions, habitat improvements and changes in elk hunting harvest limits.
An estimated 764 elk live in the area where wolves would be targeted. That compares with a population objective of 1,600 to 2,400 of the game animals, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"We want to be able to keep things in balance and, from what we can see, the only way to get there is to start managing wolves," said agency spokesman Ron Aasheim.
Wolves have also been blamed for declining elk herds in other parts of the state, particularly around Yellowstone National Park.
Aasheim said there are no current plans to submit additional petitions to kill wolves in those areas — but added that could change depending on the outcome of the proposed settlement.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula has been asked to approve the deal. Molloy has rejected prior attempts to lift protections for wolves. Four wildlife advocacy groups have objected to the settlement, saying it would put the animals at risk of widespread extermination.