HELENA - State wildlife officials will recommend increasing the quota of wolves allowed to be killed by hunters this year to 186, compared to 75 in last year's inaugural hunt.
The increased hunting quota could decrease the state's wolf population for the first time since the gray wolf was reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in 1995.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission will meet Wednesday and Thursday to set the parameters of this year's wolf hunt. The commission started taking public comment in May after approving quota alternatives of 153, 186 or 216 wolves — targets the agency estimated would reduce wolf numbers in Montana between 8 percent and 20 percent.
The agency received about 1,500 comments over that time that were "very diverse," said state wolf program Coordinator Carolyn Sime.
After receiving those comments, the agency decided to recommend a 186-wolf quota over 13 wolf management areas, an expansion from the three management areas in last year's hunt.
Montana's wolf management plan calls for a population of at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. There were an estimated 525 wolves and 37 breeding pairs at the end of last year.
State wildlife chief Ken McDonald has said an increased quota will allow for a decrease in the population while keeping within those objectives.
Wildlife officials also will recommend the commission approve an archery-only season and a five-day waiting period for a wolf license to become valid if it's purchased after the hunting season begins.
The hunting season could be affected by a pending ruling by a federal judge in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups seeks to restore Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.
Arguments in that case were heard in June, and U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has said he will make a ruling as quickly as he can.
Ranchers and hunters say the wolf population has now grown too high, which has led to more attacks on livestock and game.
After the federal government gave Montana and Idaho control over wolf management in those states last year, they held their first hunting seasons. Montana's hunt ended with 73 wolves killed and Idaho's with 185 killed, short of the quota of 220.
Wildlife officials in Idaho also are considering a higher quota for this year's hunt.
Federal protections remain in place for wolves in Wyoming, where the state law is considered hostile to the species' survival.
The proposed quota numbers in Montana do not include wolves killed by wildlife officials responding to complaints of attacks on livestock. Another 145 wolves were killed that way in 2009.
Wildlife officials are predicting the same number of such kills this year, even though the commission loosened its policy earlier this year to give federal wildlife officials greater authority to trap and shoot wolves that kill livestock.