By MATT VOLZ

Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Montana on Thursday extended its wolf hunt to Feb. 15 as the number of predators killed so far has fallen far short of the quota of 220 animals.

The state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission also approved a plan to allow hunters to assist state and federal officials in killing problem wolves that prey on livestock, a duty that previously solely belonged to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services.

The commission kicked off its two-day December meeting by giving hunters additional time to meet this year's wolf quota. To date, hunters have killed just 106 wolves.

FWP officials say the 220-wolf quota would reduce the predators' population in the state by 25 percent to an estimated 425 wolves. They say such a drop in wolf numbers would reduce instances of wolf attacks on livestock and big game, therefore easing tensions with ranchers and hunters, while maintaining a viable and connected wolf population.

The commission had originally considered extending the season from the original Dec. 31 closure to Jan. 31, but then decided to extend it into February to give hunters an even better chance of meeting the quota.

The commission also said wolf hunters won't have to wear orange outside of deer and elk season.

Conservationists opposed the extension. Mark Cook of the National Wolf Watchers Coalition said the commission "shouldn't keep shifting the goalposts."

But the ranchers and hunters who outnumbered the conservationists at the meeting said the commission should go even further and keep the hunting season open until the quota is filled.

"The people who are not in favor of this don't have anything to lose. When I say they don't have anything to lose, it's not affecting their pocketbook," said Brian Quigley of the Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association.

This year's hunt is the state's second and its first since Congress earlier this year removed federal endangered species protections for the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountain states except Wyoming. A wolf hunting season also is under way in Idaho, where 154 wolves have been shot or trapped since Aug. 30.

Hunters killed 72 wolves in Montana's first wolf hunt in 2009.

FWP commissioners also unanimously approved the proposal to allow a livestock owner to select a hunter to respond to a wolf attack. Until now, if the federal Wildlife Services confirmed a reported wolf attack and determined lethal removal is needed, only its agents would be sent to kill the problem animals.

Wildlife Service agents had killed 47 wolves that way through November.

The new proposal allowing hunters to do the job would ensure a fast response to attacks the agency said.

Hunters wouldn't replace Wildlife Services, but would be an additional option, FWP officials said.

Livestock owners and their designated hunters will need Wildlife Services approval before taking lethal action. Hunters could only be used when wildlife officials don't require the age, sex, color or identity of the wolf or wolves to be known before they are killed.

Commission chairman Bob Ream voted for the proposal despite expressing skepticism that a livestock owner would be able to pick his own hunter instead of choosing one from a pre-approved roster of hunters.

Commissioner Shane Colton said the program would have to be watched closely to make sure there was no cronyism or quid pro quo involved in how hunters are chosen.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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