Greg Wooten says shooting a Rocky Mountain wolf won't be easy, even if a federal judge doesn't blow apart the hunting season before it starts.
Wooten, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's assistant chief of law enforcement, has seen wolves within shooting range only in two years since 1995, when they were reintroduced to the state's central mountains. These elusive creatures have a knack for appearing out of nowhere, then vanishing into the brush or forest just as quickly.
"In my opinion, it's going to be a challenge," Wooten said last week after buying two wolf tags — $11.50 each — for him and his wife. "There will be a few easy harvests. But wolves tend to learn quickly."
Still, natural obstacles to legally bagging one of these big predators in Idaho, where hunting is due to start Tuesday, or in Montana, where the hunt starts Sept. 15, may not be the biggest hurdle would-be wolf hunters face.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy will consider environmental groups' demand that the hunts be halted for a second year, on grounds that lifting of federal Endangered Species Act protections earlier this year was illegal.
In 2008, Molloy, a 63-year-old Butte, Mont., native and U.S. Navy fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, derailed planned hunts with a 40-page ruling that found the federal government had fallen short of wolf recovery standards, including interbreeding of wolves between Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to ensure healthy genetics.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May tried again, this time leaving Wyoming wolves protected amid contention over the merits of its state wolf management plan.
Still, thirteen environmental groups a week ago asked Molloy to stop the shooting of up to 220 wolves in Idaho and another 75 in Montana, arguing their original concerns linger: Hunting would irreparably harm recovery efforts.
"We're very concerned about intentional and unnecessary wolf killing that will reduce the population level," said Doug Honnold, with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Mont., the environmentalists' law firm.
It's unclear if Molloy will rule Monday or take time to ponder both side's arguments.
Wolves were reintroduced to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in the mid-1990s after being nearly exterminated six decades earlier. They now number more than 1,650 across the region.
Idaho and Montana officials contend the animals have been recovered well beyond federal mandates of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in each state. For years, they've managed hunts for black bear and mountain lions; wolf management will be conducted in similar, responsible fashion, said Jim Unsworth, Idaho Fish and Game's deputy director.
If Molloy rules against hunting, Unsworth could be forced to refund nearly $70,000 from roughly 6,000 wolf tags sold since they went on sale last week. Montana starts selling wolf tags Monday for its hunt.
"We're ready," Unsworth said. "It's been an incredible amount of work, getting tags ready, training people. Just that part would be disappointing, if that was all in vain."
Though some state officials estimated up to 70,000 wolf tags could be sold by hunt's end March 31, Unsworth forecasts hunters to snap up a modest 20,000 tags. The lion's share of hunters will shoot wolves opportunistically as part of their annual hunting expeditions for mule deer or prized elk.
A smaller percentage will wait for colder weather and snow, when wolves' fur grows thicker and more valuable, selling for hundreds of dollars.
Many ranchers opposed wolf reintroduction and blame them for killing too many livestock, including 120 buck sheep south of Dillon, Mont., earlier this month. But in Montana, some are skeptical hunts will make much difference in reducing conflicts. What's more, they contend the state has been less aggressive about killing problem wolves that prey on livestock than the federal government was when the predators were still listed.
"Most people don't think it's going to be effective," said Aeric Reilly, director of the Montana Wool Growers Association. "People who have been hit by wolves more than once know they come in at night. If these people haven't seen them, I have a hard time believing they're going to fill a wolf quota in Montana."
In Idaho, by contrast, sheep ranchers are anxious for the hunt.
"I say give it a shot," said Stan Boyd, Idaho Wool Growers Association director. "It's better than doing nothing and watching them multiply and the damage continue. The folks I hang around with are going to be extremely disappointed if he (Molloy) cancels that wolf hunt."