BOISE — The Idaho Department of Fish and Game Commission voted 4-3 Monday to let hunters shoot 220 wolves during a hunting season due to start in September.
Environmental groups who have challenged the lifting of federal protections from wolves in Idaho and Montana immediately said "hunting of an imperiled species at any level is inappropriate," and may seek to stop hunts.
One big-game advocacy group, however, said the quota should have been set higher.
Idaho's policy to shoot one-quarter of Idaho's estimated 880 wolves was approved during a meeting in Idaho Falls, though commissioners don't foresee the roughly 70,000 hunters expected to buy an Idaho wolf hunting tag will succeed in filling the 220-wolf quota.
It was approved after commissioners voted 4-3 against an alternative that would have allowed hunters to shoot up to 430, or 49 percent, of the predators some hunters blame for eating too many elk and ranchers complain prey on sheep and cattle.
Last month, wildlife officials in neighboring Montana voted to let hunters in that state shoot 75 wolves starting in mid-September.
Idaho Fish and Game Commission members said without a hunt, there will be about 1,020 wolves in the state at the end of 2009. They've concluded there are enough roaming Idaho's backcountry — and straying into more urban locales like the resort region of Sun Valley — that a hunt at these levels won't put the species' survival in jeopardy.
"Neither our sportsmen, our ranchers or our elk herds can wait any longer," said Fish and Game Commission Chairman Wayne Wright, from Twin Falls, in a post-vote telephone interview with reporters. "It's time."
Commissioners said they're sticking to their 2008 goal of eventually reducing Idaho's wolf population to about 518 animals, but said the threat of litigation — and the conviction that hunters are unlikely to kill even 220 animals this year — made aiming higher inflammatory and unrealistic.
"The pending litigation definitely had an effect on all of us," said Commissioner Tony McDermott of Sagle, when asked why commissioners didn't shoot for that target in a single year. "We're going to have to take a look inside our toolbox, take a look at how the hunter harvest looks this year."
Nate Helm, Idaho president of the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a 1,000-member group that favors reducing wolf numbers nearer the 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs called for by the state's federally approved wolf management plan, was unhappy commissioners voted down the proposed 430-wolf hunt to skirt litigation.
"As an organization, we disagree with that strategy," Helm said. "I don't think that the court case will be determined by a 210-wolf difference."
State Rep. Del Raybould, a Rexburg Republican who favors aggressive wolf hunts, was more blunt.
"I was disappointed we didn't have a little bit better attack on the problem today," said Raybould. "I'm not happy, ranchers won't be happy, outfitters won't be happy and the Legislature won't be happy."
Meanwhile, Suzanne Stone, with pro-wolf Defenders of Wildlife that contends wolves have minimal impacts on livestock and big game, said commissioners are just waiting for the day when they can kill as many wolves in Idaho as possible.
"This is just phase one. This was just about trying to avoid a lawsuit and an injunction," she said. "It's a political decision, not a biological one."
Lawyers for Defenders of Wildlife and 12 other environmental groups that have sued over the federal government's May decision to lift Endangered Species Act protections oppose such hunts.
On Monday, they told The Associated Press they'll be discussing the Idaho and Montana hunting quotas this week before making a decision on whether to seek an injunction in U.S. District Court in Missoula. An injunction handed down in July 2008 prevented similar hunts from moving forward a year ago.
Jenny Harbine, a lawyer with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., which is handling litigation for the environmental groups, cited the 2008 federal court ruling that genetic exchange between individual populations of wolves dispersed throughout the region wasn't adequate. Increased mortality under state management would decrease the prospect of genetic exchange, she said.
"Hunting of an imperiled species at any level is inappropriate," Harbine said. "The science tells us this wolf population will remain imperiled and even become more so under state management."