LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) -- Wildlife managers plan to use helicopter gunners and government trappers to kill wolves roaming the Lolo Zone, a remote, rugged area in the north-central part of the state once populated by some of Idaho's biggest elk herds.

Trapping efforts will begin later this month, coinciding with the current hunting and trapping season for wolves, said Dave Cadwallader, regional supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Helicopter gunning will begin later this winter.

Both efforts are part of a new multipronged strategy designed to better manage and control wolves in the region where elk herds are struggling to maintain historic population numbers.

"My goal is not to wait," Cadwallader told the Lewiston Tribune in a story published Friday. "Let's layer all of those tools over the top of each other and try to implement each of them."

Idaho's wolf-hunting season opened in late August, but so far only six wolves have been killed in the Lolo Zone, which includes the Upper Lochsa and North Fork Clearwater river basins. State wildlife managers had hoped to remove up to 60 wolves this season from the area, which has seen its elk numbers decline from a high of about 16,000 in the late 1980s to about 2,000 today.

The steep drop has been blamed on a combination of poor habitat conditions and predation from wolves, mountain lions and black bears. Researchers from the department recently determined wolves are the primary cause of elk mortality in the zone.

This spring, shortly after Endangered Species Act protections were lifted on wolves, the department used helicopter gunning to kill five wolves. The effort was suspended because of its high cost and low success rate, which was blamed on wolves and elk moving to lower elevations where snow had melted.

This year, aerial gunning will be timed to occur when snowpacks are heavy even at lower elevations. Snow makes the animals easier to see. Despite tight budgets, Cadwallader said the agency will resume paying for the hunting of wolves from the air to help preserve Lolo elk and the revenue once generated when hunters from around the world came to the region.

"Certainly everyone understands we have an issue here and we are going to have to spend some money to try to fix it," he said. "We have been told we will have some money to pay for helicopter time and wages for trappers if we can find some."

State officials expect the intensified efforts will irritate wolf advocates, who are already skeptical of leaving wolf management up to states such as Idaho and Montana.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, called the extra wolf control measures frustrating and above and beyond the careful management state officials promised before delisting of the animals.

"The states were talking about measured actions and it turns out as soon as federal protection were lifted they are using every possible means they can to kill as many wolves as they can and there is nothing measured or rational about this," Suckling said.

Through Thursday hunters killed 153 wolves in the state and trappers had killed one. There is no quota on the number of wolves that can be killed during the hunting and trapping season. Department director Virgil Moore said he wants to significantly reduce the wolf population but stay comfortably above the 150 level that would bring a federal review and could lead to putting them back under federal protections.

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com

Copyright 2011 The AP.

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