BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- A new tally of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies shows the population held steady across the region in 2009, ending more than a decade of expansion by the predators but also underscoring their resilience in the face of new hunting seasons in Montana and Idaho.
Biologists said the region's total wolf population has remained stable and will be similar to 2008's minimum of 1,650 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
The number of breeding packs increased slightly, from 95 to 111. That's despite more than 500 wolves killed last year, primarily by hunters and government wildlife agents responding to livestock attacks.
If the preliminary figures hold, it could bolster the federal government's assertion that wolves are doing fine since losing Endangered Species Act protections last year.
The exception is Wyoming, where state law is considered hostile to the species' survival and federal protections remain in force. The state has challenged the decision to keep wolves under federal protection in Wyoming, and a federal court hearing in that case is set for Friday in Cheyenne.
The latest population data was released Thursday in court documents filed by Montana wildlife officials in a separate case brought by environmentalists. They are seeking to overturn the loss of protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.
The environmentalists suggest current population figures are not a fair indicator of the animal's long-term survival, because the states could drive down their numbers over time with no ramifications.
The 2009 results show Montana's wolf population dipped slightly, from 497 in 2008 to 493. In comparison, Wyoming's population grew from 302 to at least 319.
A precise estimate for Idaho was not made available, but the state said it expects a figure "comparable" to 2008's population of 846 wolves. Idaho reported its number of breeding packs of wolves increased from 39 in 2008 to 50 last year.
"This puts a few things to rest, first and foremost that hunting was going to hurt the population," said Montana's lead gray wolf biologist, Carolyn Sime.
Sime added that by maintaining the status quo for wolves in Montana, wildlife officials demonstrated hunting is an effective way to manage the population and keep it in check.
Ranchers across the Northern Rockies have complained in recent years that the wolf population had grown out of control, causing widespread harm to their cattle and sheep herds.
Some have recommended bringing back poisoning as a way to drastically reduce the population. Last used in the early 1900s, poison helped wiped out wolves across most of the Lower 48 states by the 1930s.
It wasn't until the 1980s that a handful of wolves from Canada began to take up residence in northern Montana. Their numbers exploded following the reintroduction of 66 wolves by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service into central Idaho and Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.
Until 2009, the population had been on a sharp upward trend, at times increasing 30 percent in a single year. Whether it starts to dip as hunting continues remains to be seen.
Under pressured from the ranching industry, Montana wildlife officials already have floated a possible hunting quota increase for the 2010 season. Last year's quota was 75 wolves.
Idaho's season was recently extended to give hunters more time to fill its quota of 220.
Whether future hunts can occur hinges on U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, who is hearing the environmentalists' suit. Molloy's ruling is not expected for several months.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.