By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Idaho will open its wolf population, now estimated at about 1,000 animals, to extensive hunting and trapping to reduce their numbers to no fewer than 150 under a plan approved on Thursday by the state Fish and Game Commission.
The move came after a heated public hearing Wednesday night in Salmon, where wolf foes declared war on the iconic predators with rhetoric describing Idaho as locked in a "wolf crisis" and as one of three "wolf-occupied states" in the Northern Rockies, along with Montana and Wyoming.
Wolves have been at the center of a bitter debate since they were reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s over the objections of ranchers and commercial outfitters who said wolves would prey on cattle and compete with hunters for elk.
The plan to cut the wolf population in Idaho comes just three months after wolves in Idaho and Montana were stripped of federal protections under the Endangered Species Act through an unprecedented act of Congress.
Removal from the U.S. endangered species list turned control of those wolves over to state wildlife agencies, now free to set hunting seasons as a way of reducing wolf numbers to levels they see as better balanced with human interests.
In Montana, wildlife managers earlier this month set a statewide quota of 220 wolves -- out of an estimated population of 566 -- for its wolf hunts, which will generally run from September to November.
Idaho's commissioners, by comparison, approved a plan that sets no quota for a combination of hunting and trapping that will be allowed for most of the year in most of the state, beginning next month.
However, Idaho would bar wolf numbers statewide from falling in any given year below the 150 minimum necessary to prevent federal re-listing of them.
The action in Idaho comes as a federal judge in Montana is poised to rule on a lawsuit by environmental groups challenging the de-listing of wolves in both states earlier this year.
The commissioners said their aim is to lower the number of conflicts between wolves and livestock in the state and to end wolf-caused declines of elk in some parts of Idaho where outfitters have complained they are losing clients because of unsuccessful hunts for elk and other big game.
Still, a recent survey by state wildlife managers shows elk populations exceed or meet biologists' objectives in the vast majority of Idaho's hunting areas. Another study by wildlife managers shows Idaho wolves killed 148 cows in 2010, out of a total 2.2 million head of cattle in the state.
Idaho game commissioners characterized their plan as a good starting point, with future plans to include wolf trapping and killing by designated state agents and by landowners.
"We will increase the tools in the toolbox and use all legal mechanisms to solve the problem," commission chairman Tony McDermott told wolf opponents on Wednesday night. "We're on the same page and we'll get it done."
At the meeting Thursday in Salmon, commissioners also cut the price of non-resident wolf hunting tags statewide from about $186 to $31.75 as an incentive to out-of-state hunters.
Wildlife advocates on Thursday vowed to launch a boycott of Idaho, its potatoes and its outfitters.
"The word is getting out that this is basically a wolf-hate state," Idaho wolf activist Lynne Stone said. "I think this is going to be a big hit to the image of Idaho and further hurt our economy."
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)