HELENA — The wolf population in the Northern Rockies rose in 2011 despite the removal of federal protections and hunts held in Montana and Idaho, federal wildlife officials said Wednesday.
The animal's numbers rose by more than 7 percent to 1,774 wolves, as state officials look for more ways to reduce the population under pressure from hunters and ranchers who blame the predators for livestock and big-game losses.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services officials said the population estimates show that Montana and Idaho have done a good job in their first year of managing the species since Congress removed federal protections in May 2011.
"The states have done a very responsible job of having wolf hunts and managing wolves," said Mike Jimenez, a wolf recovery project director for the agency. "They're looking at bringing (the population) down responsibly."
Most of the wolves in the Northern Rockies are in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, though the region also includes portions of Washington, Oregon and Utah.
Federal protections remain in place in Wyoming, where that state's wolf policy had been considered a threat to the species' survival. Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill on Wednesday to change the law as part of Wyoming's efforts to remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves there.
The new law will allow trophy hunting for wolves in a flexible zone around Yellowstone National Park beginning this fall, while classifying wolves as predators that could be shot on sight in the rest of the state. A final determination on whether to lift federal protections in Wyoming is expected by the fall, wildlife officials said.
Montana and Idaho held their second wolf hunts since 2009 with the aim of reducing the population in their states. Their management plans set a population minimum at 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs.
Idaho lowered its population by 31 to 746 wolves in 2011, according to the state's Fish and Game department. The department has a goal of reducing the number in the state, but has not set a target population or limit.
Montana had aimed to cut its wolf population by 25 percent in 2011, but the numbers actually rose 15 percent to at least 653 animals. State wildlife officials attribute that to the hunt falling short of a quota of 220 animals and to wildlife officials responding to livestock losses killing fewer than half the problem wolves than they had the year before.
That increase has prompted grumbling by county officials who say state Fish, Wildlife and Parks regulators aren't doing enough to take on the predator problem. Representatives from more than a dozen counties told FWP commissioners on Wednesday that they wanted hunting restrictions loosened so that more wolves are killed in this year's hunt.
"This is as important as the price of gas right now," said Beaverhead County Commissioner Tom Rice.
FWP wildlife director Ken McDonald said the agency was considering several proposals, including getting rid of quotas altogether and reducing the price of non-resident licenses from $350 to $50 to encourage more hunters.
A total of 18,689 licenses were purchased in 2011, including 158 non-residents, and 166 wolves were killed in the hunt that ended in mid-February.
Other suggestions, such as allowing hunters to kill more than one wolf, would require a change in state law. FWP director Joe Maurier said the agency plans to present a package to lawmakers when the Montana Legislature convenes in January.
Commissioners will hear specific proposals for the 2012 hunt in May and make a final decision in July.
"We're going to be much more aggressive in our proposals next season," Maurier said.