By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Conservationists are criticizing a plan by wildlife managers in Montana that would nearly double the number of wolves a person is allowed to kill each year, lengthen the hunting season and sanction shooting of wolves near baited traps.
The proposal by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission officially begins receiving public comment on Monday and is to be voted on by commissioners this summer.
The aim is to reduce the state's wolf population, estimated at 625, by giving more leeway to hunters and trappers, wildlife officials said.
"Our overall goal is to get wolves in balance with the rest of the critters on the landscape as well as landowner tolerance," said agency spokesman Ron Aasheim.
Wolves in Montana and Idaho were removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list in 2011, opening the way for state-licensed hunting and trapping. The animals were taken off the list last year in Wyoming, where they can be killed on sight except in regulated hunting areas.
In the mid-1990s, wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies over the objections of ranchers and outfitters, who say the predators are a threat to livestock and big-game animals like elk. But conservationists applauded the restoration after past extermination campaigns pushed wolves toward extinction.
The new allowances for wolf hunting appear to have led to a decrease in their population. An estimated 1,674 wolves roamed the Northern Rockies region in 2012, a drop of nearly 7 percent from 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Under the Montana plan, the hunting season for wolves would open in September and close at the end of March instead of February. Also, the number of wolves that could be killed in a given calendar year would climb to 10 from six per person and a wolf could be shot if the animal were drawn to a baited trap but not captured.
That last change would serve as an exception to an existing prohibition in Montana that forbids hunters from attracting game with bait to shoot it.
Wolves of the Rockies, a conservation group in Montana, said the extension of the hunting season meant wolves in an advanced stage of gestation would be fair game.
"Now we're going to hunt pregnant wolves. That's a sad day," said Marc Cooke, president of the group.
Anti-trapping organization Footloose Montana and conservation group WildEarth Guardians also voiced opposition to the plan.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which favors the sport of elk hunting, welcomed it.
"States are doing what they can to keep wolves in check and we support that," said spokesman Mark Holyoak.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Peter Cooney)