By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - A controversial hunting contest in Idaho targeting wolves and coyotes has ended with nearly two dozen coyotes killed but no wolves shot, though rancor over the event remains undiminished.
The coyote and wolf derby was promoted by ranchers and hunting enthusiasts as a form of family recreation aimed at reducing the number of predators threatening livestock and big-game animals like elk prized by hunters. It was condemned by conservationists as cruel and unsportsmanlike.
The weekend hunt on national forest land ringing the Idaho mountain town of Salmon drew 250 contestants seeking cash and trophies in categories ranging from bagging the largest wolf to shooting the most female coyotes. Children as young as 10 were invited to compete in a youth division.
The event was sponsored by Idaho for Wildlife, which fights "all radical anti-hunting and anti-gun environmentalists," according to its executive director Steve Alder.
Adler said none of the teams managed to kill a wolf, but 23 coyotes were killed, making it a far cry from the "wolf killing spree" predicted by opponents.
"It shows hunting is not an effective tool to eliminate wolves. We're going to have to take more aggressive action," Alder said.
Hunters brought coyote carcasses to Salmon to be measured and counted and potentially sold to fur buyers. Several carcasses were piled in the back of pickup trucks.
Some contestants said they were disappointed at not bagging any wolves, and expressed frustration with opponents of the event.
"We'll only have agreement with environmentalists when we kill all the wolves here," said Jeremiah Martin, a hunter from Salmon.
Online petitions criticizing the contest garnered tens of thousands of signatures and opponents have threatened a boycott of Idaho's famous potatoes.
The derby is thought to have been the first statewide competitive wolf shoot in the continental United States since 1974, when gray wolves in the Lower 48 came under the federal Endangered Species Act protections after being hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction.
Wolves in the Northern Rockies, including Idaho, and in the western Great Lakes, lost the protection of the act in recent years as states pushed for hunting and trapping rights. The Obama administration is now proposing to strip wolves of federal safeguards nationwide.
Coyotes are considered pests and are allowed to be shot on sight in much of the U.S. West.
On Friday, a U.S. judge rejected a request by conservation groups to block the Idaho hunt, which was staged on a national forest near where federal wildlife managers reintroduced wolves to the Rocky Mountain West in the mid-1990s.
WildEarth Guardians and others had argued that the U.S. Forest Service did not issue proper permits for the event, but the judge said the contest was similar to activities like picnicking that do not require such special permits.
Bethany Cotton, wildlife program manager for WildEarth Guardians, said the legal battle will go on.
"A killing contest has no place on public lands," she said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and David Brunnstrom)