BILLINGS, Mont. — Montana wildlife commissioners shut down gray wolf hunting Tuesday in backcountry adjacent to Yellowstone National Park after nine of the predators were killed there in recent weeks.
Commissioners, however, kept the statewide kill quota at 75, repeating their belief that the planned harvest would not hurt the overall population of the animals that were removed from the endangered species list in May.
Wolf hunts this fall in Montana and neighboring Idaho are the first in the lower 48 states since the species came off the list. The states have a combined 1,350 wolves.
Hunting was temporarily suspended near Yellowstone last week after nine wolves were killed in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness along the park's northern border.
That early season total included at least four members of a pack familiar to tourists and nearly filled the 12 wolf quota for most of the southern half of the state.
Hunt critics said the shootings revealed flaws in Montana's inaugural wolf hunt. They wanted the quota reduced.
Others had pushed for a higher quota to allow more hunting elsewhere in the Yellowstone region where wolf attacks on livestock have been frequent.
Striking a middle ground, the five-member Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission voted unanimously to end hunting in the backcountry area near Yellowstone for the remainder of the season while keeping the statewide quota intact.
Wildlife officials had warned the area quota of 12 wolves could be exceeded when the general wolf season opens in two weeks.
But wildlife commission chairman Shane Colton said the wolf population could sustain heavier losses without long-term harm.
"We're not concerned," Colton said. "Our 75 statewide quota is so much on the conservative end that we can withstand an overrun and still have very strong numbers of wolves across the landscape."
Montana has an estimated 550 wolves. This season's quota equals 15 percent of that population. Biologists contend the harvest could be doubled to 30 percent without any harm to the species.
Idaho's quota of 220 animals equals about 26 percent of the state's population.
Matt Skoglund with the Natural Resources Defense Council said if the state is serious about curbing attacks on livestock, hunting needs to be steered to "front country" areas where wilderness butts up against ranch land.
"It doesn't make sense from that perspective to have ever allowed hunting in wilderness areas at all," Skoglund said.
Members of the commission and state wildlife managers have acknowledged a mistake in the decision to open early season hunting next to Yellowstone. They characterized it as a learning experience.
Commissioner Bob Ream said he'd like to see a subquota next year for the area next to Yellowstone, so the wolf harvest could be spread more broadly.
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