By MATTHEW BROWN
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Federal officials on Monday gave their preliminary support to 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 the state's proposal to kill 18 of an estimated 30 wolves along the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. The proposal calls for the elimination of between one and three packs in the area.
A similar petition from Idaho for wolves in the Lolo area remains pending.
Wildlife advocates have challenged the states' plans in court, saying they would misuse the Endangered Species Act to kill animals the law is meant to protect. A decision in that case is pending, but a recently proposed settlement in a related case could 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.
But Nicole Rosmarino of the group WildEarth Guardians said killing elk is "what wolves are supposed to be doing."
"They're criticized for eating cows and they're criticized for eating their natural prey," she said. "Wolves are in a tough spot nowadays."
Wolves have also been blamed for declining elk herds in other parts of the state, particularly around Yellowstone National Park.
Monday's action was welcomed by Montana elected officials including Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus. All three Democrats have prodded Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to approve the state's proposal.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chris Tollefson said the agency expedited its review of the Montana and Idaho proposals in part because of pressure from the state officials.
"We recognized the importance of this issue and the desire of the states to move as quickly possible," he said.
Aasheim said there are no current plans to submit additional petitions to kill wolves that have significant impacts on big game herds. He added that could change depending on the outcome of the proposed legal settlement.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula has been asked to approve that deal. Announced earlier this month, it would eliminate protections for about 1,300 wolves in Montana and Idaho but keep them in place temporarily in four states where the species is still considered vulnerable -- Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Utah.
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.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.