By BEN NEARY
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission voted Wednesday to allow hunters to kill up to 52 wolves in the state this fall even as Gov. Matt Mead said he remains hopeful that Congress will act to exempt the state's wolf management plan from legal challenges he expects from environmental groups.
Game commission approval is the latest in a predictable series of state actions since Mead reached a deal last summer with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to end federal protections for wolves in the state. Mead said he hopes final federal approval of wolf delisting in the state by early fall.
The agreement would require Wyoming to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and at least 100 individual animals outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Indian Reservation. Wildlife managers say there are currently about 270 wolves in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone.
Under Wyoming's plan, the state would allow trophy hunting for wolves in a flexible zone around Yellowstone National Park, beginning in October. The hunting would last until 52 were killed or until the end of the year.
Wolves in the rest of the state would be classified as predators that could be shot on sight year-round.
Mead said 90 percent of Wyoming's wolves live in the trophy hunting area. Although he said he's heard criticism that the limit of 52 wolves this year is too low, he said he believes it's appropriate.
"This was a complex deal that we reached and we don't want to break the deal," Mead said. "And we don't want to get down to that bare minimum, where disease, or an accident out on the freeway where five wolves are wiped out, and we go below those minimums."
Mead said he's hopeful Congress will act to exempt the state's wolf management plan from any legal challenges from environmental groups. Congress earlier extended such protection to earlier wolf delisting actions in Idaho and Montana.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, had pushed to exempt Wyoming's wolf plan from legal challenges last year but the provision was removed from an Interior Department spending bill.
Christine S. D'Amico, spokeswoman for Lummis in Washington, said Wednesday that Lummis continues to explore all options for how to protect the state's wolf plan.
Many ranchers and hunters in Wyoming believe the state's wolf population has grown unacceptably high since wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. The state has fought for years to try to get state control of the animals, repeatedly and unsuccessfully suing the federal government.
The federal government accepted a similar delisting agreement from Wyoming in 2007 only to repudiate it as soon as a federal judge criticized it in response to a legal challenge from environmental groups.
Mead said he's heard environmental groups are intent on suing to try to block Wyoming's new wolf plan.
"Anything we have done on wolves, or that other states have done on wolves, is just a hot-button for litigation," Mead said. "But I would ask all those groups, number one, recognize that we're approaching this very conservatively, that we worked hard over a year on this plan, that I think it is scientifically sound.
"It has been signed off on by the Secretary of Interior," Mead said of the plan. "It has been repeatedly signed off on by the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. So it's not just something that we came up with as just good for Wyoming. It's an agreement by a lot of parties that worked on this."
Jenny Harbine is a lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont. The group has mounted legal challenges to wolf delisting efforts before.
Harbine said Wednesday it's too early to say whether her group or its clients will challenge Wyoming's wolf plan until the plan receives final federal approval this fall.
"I'll just say that the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service should only delist wolves in Wyoming if the agency feels like doing so would comply with the Endangered Species Act and has a sound scientific basis at this time," Harbine said. "If delisting rule in Wyoming is legal, then there's no reason to seek indemnification from Congress for such a rule."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.