By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Some 166 wolves were killed in Montana in that state's first hunting season since federal protection of the species was lifted last year, but its population still managed to grow by 15 percent in 2011, state wildlife officials said on Thursday.
After Congress removed most wolves in the Northern Rockies from the U.S. endangered species list, Montana established a quota of 220 wolves for a hunting season that began in September 2011 and was extended to February 15 of this year.
Not only did the final tally of wolves killed during the season fall short of the quota, it was more than offset by natural reproduction in the wolf population, according to figures released by Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency.
The state's population of wolves at the end of 2011 was estimated at 653, a net gain of 87, or 15 percent, from the year before, despite the 166 wolves killed by hunters since September and 93 non-hunting wolf deaths recorded last year.
The result prompted state wildlife managers to call for giving wolf hunters greater latitude in the methods at their disposal, including the use of trapping and electronic calling that imitates other wolves or injured prey.
"Fish, Wildlife and Parks understands that the continued increasing trend is alarming for many Montanans who look for (our) management to cap and reduce the wolf population. That is our intent," agency head Joe Maurier said in a statement.
By comparison, Idaho hunters and trappers have killed 322 wolves as of February 27 in a season that began in August 2011 and will remain open in some parts of the state through June 2012.
Idaho is seeking to reduce its wolf numbers from an estimated 1,000 animals to as few as 150 through a combination of rifle hunting, trapping, snaring and other lethal control actions.
Wolves, which once ranged over most of North America, were hunted, trapped and poisoned to the edge of extinction in the lower 48 states by the 1930s under a government-sponsored eradication program.
Decades later, biologists recognized that wolves had an essential role to play in mountain ecosystems as an apex predator, leading to protection of the animal under the Endangered Species Act.
The wolf was reintroduced to the Rockies in the mid-1990s over the vehement objections of ranchers, farmers and sportsmen, who see wolves as a threat to livestock and big-game animals such as elk and deer.
Environmentalists say the impact of wolves on cattle herds and wildlife is overstated, and they fear that the recent removal of federal safeguards could push the wolf back to the brink.
Protracted legal wrangling over wolves culminated last spring with Congress taking the unprecedented step of removing wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana by legislation, turning their management over to the states.
The government has proposed lifting protections for another 350 wolves in Wyoming.
Conservation groups, including Alliance for the Wild Rockies and WildEarth Guardians, have sued to restore protections to wolves in the Northern Rockies in a lawsuit pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)