By Dan Boyce
HELENA, Montana (Reuters) - Montana wildlife officials loosened restrictions on wolf hunting on Thursday, allowing trapping of the animals in the state for the first time since they were removed from the endangered species list last year.
Passed by the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission, the new regulations also extend the length of the hunting season and remove the statewide kill limit in an effort to curtail a wolf population that has been steadily increasing.
Biologists counted at least 650 wolves in the state even before this year's litter of pups were born, which wildlife officials say is well above what is considered a healthy population.
Sportsmen and ranchers have blamed wolves for depleting elk populations in some areas and for killing livestock.
Wolves have proved difficult for hunters to kill, the Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission said in deciding to allow trapping. Last fall and winter hunters killed 166 wolves, falling short of the state's goal of 220 to maintain a healthy population.
"We're not wildlife exterminators. We're wildlife managers," Commissioner Shane Colton said, adding that trapping is part of a balanced approach to managing a species that has successfully recovered.
Yet the decision to trap wolves has been met with condemnation from wolf advocates.
"In 2012 it's just mind-boggling to me that we're still talking about trapping. It's such an inhumane and torturous method," Pam Guschausky, a resident of Great Falls, Montana, told the commission during a public meeting on Thursday.
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.
(Editing by Mary Slosson and Lisa Shumaker)