Hunters will be able to shoot as many as 220 gray wolves in Montana this fall under rules adopted Thursday by state wildlife commissioners.
The hunt is scheduled to begin in early September and is expected to reduce the predator's Montana population by about 25 percent to 425 wolves.
A wolf hunt is also planned in Idaho, where officials have proposed no statewide harvest targets or quotas.
Wolves were taken off the endangered species list in an unprecedented move by Congress this spring in Montana, Idaho and parts of Utah, Washington and Oregon.
Government biologists declared the species recovered from near-extermination in the Northern Rockies a decade ago. Yet they were kept on the endangered list by a series of lawsuits from environmental groups and animal rights activists, leading western lawmakers to insert a provision in the budget bill that forced the animals off the list - the first time that had happened since the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission Chairman Bob Ream said he expected Thursday's quota decision to draw criticism. However, he added that there was no chance of the population being decimated as some fear.
"We are making the best, science-based decision that we can," said Ream, a retired biologist who studied wolves as a University of Montana professor. "Wolves are here to stay."
Some hunters and livestock groups wanted a higher quota to reduce attacks on livestock and big game. Wildlife advocates argued the number should be lower so the population can keep expanding.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife bureau chief Ken McDonald said this year's quota level would have drastic implications for the population if it was continued long-term. But he said the state will revisit the number next year and will adjust it as needed.
"If we continued at this level of harvest year after year it would probably be unsustainable, but what we are proposing is in this single year a harvest to start getting the management under control," he said.
More than 700 public comments were submitted on this year's wolf season. Many came from out of state or overseas, reflecting continued intense interest in an iconic predator once on the verge of extinction but now thriving and reviled by some elk hunters and ranchers.
Tim Aldrich with the Montana Wildlife Federation said the 220-wolf quota will give the state experience in managing wolves without threatening the species' hard-fought recovery over the last two decades. While the hunt won't eliminate wolf attacks on livestock and big game, Aldrich said it will provide lessons in how those issues can best be addressed.
"They're taking a reasonably sized step toward having a better feel for what the reduction in the world population means," Aldrich said.
Without a hunt, the Montana population was projected to increase to more than 600 animals.
That's still possible given that environmentalists have filed two lawsuits challenging Congress' move that stripped wolves of their endangered status.
Those cases were consolidated and are pending before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula. Molloy has reversed prior attempts to turn control over wolves to the states and allow hunting. He temporarily allowed hunts in Idaho and Montana two years ago. Only about 70 wolves were killed in Montana's hunt.
It's uncertain when Molloy will issue a ruling in the latest lawsuits. A hearing in the consolidated cases is set for July 26 in Missoula.
In Idaho, Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore has declined to set a harvest target for the predators during the state's seven-month season beginning at the end of August. He has said only that Idaho will manage wolves to keep their population above 150 animals and 15 breeding pairs.
If they fell below that point, Idaho could attract federal scrutiny for a possible re-listing under the Endangered Species Act. Montana falls under the same rules, but officials have said they have no intention of driving down the population to such a low level.