By MATTHEW BROWN

Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer turned heads when he announced he was sending out state wildlife agents to kill wolf packs any time they attack livestock or drive down elk numbers.

Yet there's been no immediate change in how the state deals with problem wolves.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said Friday the agency is awaiting a response from federal officials on a petition to shoot packs blamed for hurting elk herds in the Bitterroot Valley.

Schweitzer declared in a Wednesday interview that the state would not wait and instead would "take action" on its own. Federal officials have said an initial decision could be made within six weeks.

Schweitzer also notified U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he had directed wildlife officials to shoot "whole packs that kill livestock, wherever this may occur."

But projections made last year by wildlife officials showed such actions would quickly reduce wolf numbers below sustainable levels.

Within four years, the number of breeding packs would be reduced by half to just 14. That's below the level considered necessary for the population to remain viable over the long-term.

Although the state has authority to take out problem packs -- and did so nine times in 2009, the most recent year for which data was available -- its longstanding policy has been to try other methods first. That includes non-lethal measures and the incremental removal of wolves from attacking packs until the problem stops.

"The idea is to address the depredation problems and still maintain a recovered wolf population, which we are committed to doing," Aasheim said.

He referred further questions about removing all depredating packs to Schweitzer's office.

The governor's natural resources adviser, Mike Volesky, effectively backed off Schweitzer's earlier comments in the press and his letter to Salazar. Volesky wrote in an email that wildlife agents had "discretion to use whole-pack removal" -- not a mandate to do so.

"The letter probably dealt with the issue inartfully," Volesky wrote. "It's usually better to leave some discretion to the experts on the ground, who can then react to specific circumstances."

Schweitzer's comments had raised alarm among wildlife advocates.

The governor had encouraged ranchers in northern Montana to shoot wolves that harass their livestock -- currently prohibited north of Interstate 90 -- and said state game wardens would no longer investigate wolf killings in that part of the state.

"It sends the wrong signal to would-be wolf poachers that they could say they are protecting livestock and eliminating wolves," said Michael Leahy with Defenders of Wildlife.

Lawsuits brought by advocacy groups including Leahy's have kept gray wolves in the Northern Rockies on the endangered list for a decade since the animals exceeded the government's original recovery goals. There are now at least 1,700 wolves in the Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon -- more than five times the recovery goal of at least 300 wolves in the region.

Several measures now before Congress would lift protections for the animals regardless of a recent order from U.S. District Judge Donald Molly that had restored their endangered status.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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