Gray wolves once again are expected to be in the crosshairs of hunters this fall, with Montana officials proposing to allow 220 of them to be shot during the state’s second wolf season.

It is the highest proposed quota yet, up from 186 in the canceled 2010 season and 75 in the inaugural wolf hunting season in 2009. Modeling predictions from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks say the new quota will result in a 25 percent reduction from the estimated 2010 population of 566 gray wolves in Montana to 425 wolves. Those models include the addition of new wolf pups to the population, as well as the subtraction of adult wolves shot for harassing livestock.

As part of a federally approved wolf management plan, Montana must maintain a minimum of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs or they will be returned to federal protection.

Like last year’s proposed hunt — which was canceled because of a federal court lawsuit that put wolves in the Northern Rockies back on the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act — Montana will be broken into 13 wolf management units. That’s expected to help focus the removal of gray wolves from areas where they’re causing problems.

“We’re modeling our proposal after the 2010 season,” said Ron Aasheim, an FWP spokesman.

FWP officials note that after the 2009 hunt, the number of wolves in Montana increased from 497 to 524 wolves. At least 1,650 wolves live in a six-state region in the Northern Rockies, with most in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

John Stivert, who operates the federal agency in Montana that shoots wildlife preying on livestock, said they’ve only removed 20 wolves from the landscape since its fiscal year began in October. While he doesn’t know for certain how that compares to previous years, he said it seems to be quite lower.

“Nobody really knows why, but we suspect the unusually hard winter may have something to do with it,” Stivert said. “There are wolves everywhere, but we haven’t seen the depredation that we have in the past.

“I think the elk are still down low and are concentrated in a few areas, so that may be a factor. Work is picking up now — as it always does —but the winter was quite slow as far as wolf damage went.”

The proposed season also could include a special wolf management unit in the Bitterroot near the Idaho border, where the elk population has dropped from around 2,000 animals to an estimated 764 in recent years. The state had asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for permission to remove 18 of the estimated 30 wolves in the West Fork of the Bitterroot River under what’s known as the “10(j) rule” allowed under the Endangered Species Act, but Aasheim said that with the recent act of Congress mandating delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho, he’s not sure if that permission is necessary.

But he added that since wolves remain a listed species until the Department of Interior finishes the process of reissuing its wolf delisting rule first published in April 2009, they may still pursue the 10(j) exclusion that would allow wolves to be hunted in the Bitterroot prior to the wolf season.

“We might want to do something earlier rather than later,” Aasheim said.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Clearwater are continuing their legal opposition to the 10(j) rule, and filed court documents Monday saying that the rule allows “harmful and/or lethal management activities that disrupt natural biological and ecological processes, harm wolves, and are prohibited by the Endangered Species Act.”

Mike Garrity, the Alliance’s executive director, adds that they’re also looking into whether Congress illegally violated separation of powers laws by taking action while the wolf delisting debate was being considered in federal court.

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“We think it’s a violation of the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution,” Garrity said on Tuesday.

 Idaho wildlife managers also are moving forward with a hunting season to remove some of the estimated 705 wolves in the state. During the 2009 hunting season, 188 wolves were killed out of the 220 quota limit.  State biologists are expected to present options in July, with the Fish and Game Commission possibly adopting a harvest strategy at their meeting in August.

Idaho’s plan, which was adopted in 2008, is meant to maintain 518 wolves or more during the five-year post de-listing period.

Montana’s FWP Commission is slated to discuss the proposed wolf season, quotas and hunting district boundaries at its May 12 meeting in Helena at FWP headquarters at 1420 E. 6th Ave, and make a final decision July 14. The item is posted for discussion shortly after 10 a.m., but officials caution that times can vary by as much as an hour either way.

A public comment period is expected to run through June 20. During the previous comment period, the commission received more than 1,500 responses.

For the 2009 hunt, more than 15,000 wolf tags were sold, costing $19 for residents and $350 for nonresidents.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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