By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON Idaho (Reuters) - The sponsors of a controversial wolf-hunting competition in Idaho last year are proposing an annual contest on federal lands that rewards participants for bagging as many animals as they can in three days, organizers said Thursday.
The group, named Idaho for Wildlife, is seeking a special recreation permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to hold contests each January for five years that would see as many as 500 hunters targeting wolves, coyotes, jackrabbits, starlings, skunks, weasels and raccoons.
The form of competitive hunting known as a predator derby has grown in popularity in recent years among sportsmen in Western states, alongside opposition from conservationists who denounce the hunts as organized killing contests.
Steve Alder is executive director of Idaho for Wildlife, which says it fights "all radical anti-hunting and anti-gun environmentalists."
He said the proposal for public lands near the ranching community of Salmon celebrate hunting, a form of family recreation and a centuries-old tradition in states such as Idaho. And he said the contest doubled as a way to assert individual rights on public lands and defy animal-rights activists.
"We're not going to stand by and allow the feds and environmentalists to try to take away our legal rights," Alder told Reuters.
The group was criticized in December when it launched the first statewide competition in decades to hunt wolves and coyotes. The tournament encouraged children as young as 10 to take part in a youth division, and offered cash prizes and trophies to two-person teams for killing the largest wolf and the most female coyotes.
Public comment sought by the BLM on the new proposal, which would take place on more than 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of federal range lands in the central part of the state, closes on Monday.
Last year the agency declined to allow the derby on lands it oversees, saying sponsors had failed to apply for a special permit in time.
Roughly 250 people paid entry fees to attend December's event, but the majority did so to show their support for organizers. Just a few dozen hunters took to the hills, killing no wolves and 23 coyotes, Alder said.
Conservation groups vowed to fight the proposal, saying "killing contests" have no place on public lands.
"Indiscriminately killing carnivores in a sick competition based on body counts is ecologically indefensible and ethically bankrupt, not to mention dangerous for other users of public lands," said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)