BILLINGS, Mont. — Wildlife officials in the Northern Rockies said Wednesday they are considering hunting gray wolves in the name of research to get around a recent court ruling that restored federal protections for the animals.
Environmentalists derided the proposal, vowing to challenge in court any new plans for hunting the estimated 1,367 wolves in Idaho and Montana.
"They're adopting the Japanese whaling approach of holding hunts under the obviously erroneous concept of research," said Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain director for Defenders of Wildlife.
Hunters in Idaho and Montana killed 258 wolves during hunts last fall — the first for wolves in the lower 48 states in decades. State officials said the hunts proved wolves can be hunted without driving the population to extinction.
But the Aug. 5 ruling from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is likely to cancel or postpone wolf seasons scheduled to start next month in the two states.
Molloy had allowed last year's hunts, and his latest ruling hinged on a more technical matter — the government's attempt to treat wolves in Montana and Idaho differently than in neighboring Wyoming, where they were never taken off the endangered list.
Still, the ruling left officials scrambling for new ways to control a predator responsible for increasing attacks on livestock and big game herds.
Montana wolf program coordinator Carolyn Sime said one option under consideration was to apply for a federally permitted "research hunt" to better understand the impact of public hunting on wolf populations.
In the absence of hunting, more than 1,200 wolves have been killed during the last 15 years by government agents and ranchers in response to livestock attacks. Sime said a research hunt could reveal if a regulated public harvest could accomplish the same task.
"It is sort of counterintuitive, but we do need to answer those questions," Sime said. "It may reduce some uncertainty about the effects of human hunting."
Idaho Fish and Game Deputy Director Jim Unsworth said his state is also considering a research hunt, but added that it "hasn't got much encouragement" from federal wildlife managers who would have to sign off on the plan.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chris Tollefson said he was not aware of any endangered species for which hunting is allowed. He acknowledged his agency was in discussions with the two states about the future of wolf management, but declined to offer details.
"There are a number of ideas out there and a number of opinions. At this point, it's premature to say where we're going to go," he said.
Unsworth said Idaho has also revived a plan to remove wolf packs that have driven down populations of big game animals including elk and moose. The proposal, which had been shelved when public hunting was allowed last year, involves the controlled killing of wolves by federal or state wildlife agents, not members of the public.
An initial proposal, to remove dozens of wolves from the Lolo region along the Montana border, is likely to be released this week. Similar plans for other parts of the state are expected to follow, Unsworth said.
Those wolf killings, too, are likely to be challenged, through a second lawsuit already pending before Molloy.