By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Idaho has called off a professional hunter hired to kill wolves in a federally protected wilderness area because he had succeeded in reducing the population enough to protect the elk prized by hunters.
The hunter killed nine wolves since mid-December, but none since mid-January.
"If he wasn't catching any more, there wasn't any reason to keep him there," said Fish and Game spokesman Mike Keckler.
Conservation groups had tried unsuccessfully to block the hunt in court.
The push by state wildlife managers to kill wolves in the wilderness renewed a battle over an animal that was nearly extinct in the continental United States when it was declared an endangered species in 1974.
As the population rebounded, wolves in the Northern Rockies, including Idaho, lost federal protection and can now be hunted and trapped.
The wolves killed were part of two packs in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in the mountains of central Idaho, where wolves were imported from Canada in the mid-1990s to re-establish the species in the Northern Rockies.
It was unclear how many traps and snares were laid in the backcountry or how many additional wolves might be killed by the equipment in the several days it would take the trapper to collect it, said Keckler, the Fish and Game spokesman.
Many hunters and ranchers want to see Idaho's wolf population cut from an estimated 650 to roughly 150, still above a threshold that would trigger renewed federal protection.
Hunters are opposed to wolves because they compete for game such as elk and ranchers dislike wolves because they sometimes kill livestock.
Idaho receives hundreds of millions of dollars a year in economic benefits from hunting, fishing and wildlife watching, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Conservationists argue that wolves have helped restore an ecosystem taxed by an overabundance of elk and deer.
Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter earlier this month called for creation of a $2 million fund to underwrite efforts across the state to kill wolves.
Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative in Boise for Defenders of Wildlife, said the state was allowing politics instead of science to drive its wolf-management decisions.
"Idaho has been on a downward spiral ever since delisting (in 2011)," she said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)