OSLO (Reuters) - Five wolf hunters were sentenced to jail in Norway on Tuesday in an unprecedented environmental crackdown to protect a tiny stock of about 35 of the predators living in eastern pine forests despite widespread local opposition.
The men, given terms of between six to 20 months, were the first to be convicted for shooting wolves since a few dozen animals were re-introduced in a joint environmental project with Sweden in the 1990s.
Hunting almost wiped out all wolves in Norway in the 1960s.
Many locals oppose having wild animals on their doorsteps, saying packs kill sheep and roam close to homes and schools.
But Nina Jensen, head of the WWF conservation group in Norway, said the verdict handed out in the southeastern town of Elverum was a historic first step that would encourage people to live with nature and allow wolves to roam from the Arctic to the Mediterranean.
"Illegal hunting is the single largest cause of death for wolves in Norway," she said, urging Norwegians to tolerate packs, perhaps even as a tourist attraction in remote areas.
Police built the case, under laws for fighting organized crime, after tapping phone calls between the men as they planned hunts. At least one of the men, Dennis Nordahl, who said he killed a wolf after mistaking it for a fox, said he would appeal.
The men will not be sent to jail until appeals are exhausted, which could take months or even years.
Over the past winter, between 34 and 36 wolves were recorded living in Norway, with another 39 crossing over the border from bigger stocks in neighboring Sweden, according to environmental monitoring group Rovdata.
A study last year in the journal Science estimated that 12,000 wolves live in 28 nations across Europe and that populations are stable or rising.
(Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Andrew Heavens)