By MATT VOLZ
HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Montana officials planning the state's upcoming wolf hunt are considering allowing trapping for the first time and eliminating quotas in an effort to reduce the number of wolves in the state.
Ranchers and hunters concerned about their livestock and big-game kills have complained the growing wolf population threatens their interests and they have pressured state regulators to do more to cut wolf numbers. In March, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials invited county commissioners from across the state to Helena to hear their ideas for improving the hunt's effectiveness.
The state wildlife agency has responded with a wolf-hunt proposal to go before the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission on Thursday in what promises to be a contentious debate over an animal that was protected under the federal Endangered Species Act until Congress removed those protections last year.
The wildlife agency proposes doing away with quotas -- last fall and winter, just 166 wolves were killed out of a 220-wolf quota -- and extending the season to Feb. 28. The agency also plans to ask legislators to rewrite state laws to allow the use of electronic calls and to increase the number of wolves a hunter or trapper can take from one to three.
But at the forefront of the debate will be whether to expand the hunt to allow hunters to trap wolves in addition to offering archery and rifle seasons. Animal-rights groups say they consider trapping unethical and they are prepared to fight the proposal.
"If we allow this to happen with trapping and snaring, what's next? Baiting, poisoning?" said Marc Cooke of the advocacy group Wolves for the Rockies. "I have a feeling that that meeting room in Helena is going to be packed on Thursday. It's going to be hot. It's going to be very hot."
Trapping will "unleash a wave of wolf hatred," and the traps will expose other wildlife to unintended death and injury, National Wolfwatcher Coalition officials wrote in comments to Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That, in addition to the other proposed changes, would "dramatically increase harvest levels," which could result in a population decline beyond what the state models predict, the group said.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials say in documents outlining the proposal that their population objective after the hunting season is 425 wolves. Their models predict 377 wolves could be killed in the hunt this year and the population would not drop below 490 wolves.
FWP Commission Chairman Bob Ream said that number probably won't be met without the legislative changes to allow electronic calls and to increase the number of wolves an individual hunter can kill. With the Legislature convening in January, lawmakers are unlikely to pass such a bill before February, and the proposed date to end the hunt is Feb. 28.
Wildlife officials will keep a close eye on the wolves killed in each district and will close down a wolf management unit if the hunt appears to be cutting too deeply, Ream said.
Ream said he also will suggest the agency develop an education component, such as a video, on how to more effectively hunt wolves.
The commission will take public comment on the proposal and make a final decision in July.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.