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Montana's inaugural wolf hunting season has been almost too successful in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

Nine wolves have been killed by hunters in the area along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, including four from the Cottonwood Pack, two of which were radio-collared as part of the park's wolf studies.

The large kill in the Absaroka-Beartooth has surprised Montana's wolf manager.

"We didn't think wolves would be that vulnerable to firearms harvest," said Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "The uncertainty is why we went with a low quota to begin with."

The total quota for the hunting district, one of four backcountry wolf-hunting districts in the state, is only 12 wolves. The season opened Sept. 15, while the general season, which encompasses the entire state, opens Oct. 25.

"It is conceivable that three more wolves could be harvested in the backcountry and the season could be closed before it opens in the front country," Sime said.

That's not what FWP had envisioned. The agency has viewed the hunt, in part, as a way to remove the predators from the front country where they're more likely to interact with or kill livestock. If only wolves in the backcountry are killed, FWP isn't meeting part of its objective.

"When we started out on the whole hunting season, we would've been the first to say we don't know how this is going to work," Sime said.

She said wildlife managers want to encourage wolves to remain in the backcountry, away from potential conflicts with livestock.

"So what we're learning is that maybe we need to rethink these backcountry hunts and see if we can fine-tune that."

Montana has allowed wolf hunting this fall in four backcountry districts that coincide with early deer and elk hunting seasons. The three others are in the Bob Marshall-Great Bear wilderness areas in northwestern Montana.

So far, only two wolves have been killed in these three districts during the early season for a total wolf harvest in the state of 11.

On Oct. 25, the wolf hunting season opens across the state coinciding with the opening of the big game deer and elk seasons. The total quota for the state is 75 wolves, but that is divided into three management units - 41 in the northern unit, 22 in the west and 12 in the southeast that includes the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

To prevent an overharvest, hunters are required to call FWP within 12 hours of a kill. The hunter then has 10 days to present the animal's skull and hide for inspection.

In Idaho, which is also holding its first wolf-hunting season, 27 wolves had been killed as of Monday out of a statewide quota of 220.

Sime said that FWP has the ability to fine-tune its wolf hunting season next year and that it will be "taking to heart" the difference in the terrain between the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and that of the Bob Marshall, which tends to be more thickly forested. More open country in the Absaroka-Beartooth may be contributing to the greater harvest of wolves, Sime speculated.

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Although at least four of the wolves have come from a pack monitored by the Yellowstone Wolf Project, two of which were collared, the park's lead wolf biologist wasn't upset.

"With everything that's wolfy, there's a pro and a con," said Doug Smith.

But he added that he supports the wolf's delisting and the killing of the wolves during the legal hunting season.

At last count the state had sold 10,509 wolf hunting licenses, 50 of which went to nonresidents.

The season was opened in Montana and Idaho after a federal judge denied environmental groups' request for a preliminary injunction. The groups are seeking to overturn the delisting of the wolves from endangered species protection. Judge Donald Molloy did say, however, that the environmental groups are likely to prevail in their delisting lawsuit.

Montana's wolf population at the end of 2008 was estimated at 500 animals. So Sime sees a hunter harvest of 75 animals as conservative, especially considering that the count doesn't include young-of-the-year.

"I think this hunting season is very important from a symbolic viewpoint," she said. "It's an important benchmark in the timeline of wolves on the Montana landscape.

"Here's our first opportunity to manage wolves like other wildlife."

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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