Gray wolves were back in the cross hairs of hunters on Tuesday, just months after they were removed from the federal endangered species list and eight decades since being hunted to extinction across the Northern Rockies.
Hunters in Idaho began stalking gray wolves in a handful of districts in the central and northern mountains. Shortly after dawn, an Idaho real estate agent became the first to report a kill.
Robert Millage of the lumber town of Kamiah bagged an adult female from 25 yards away in the mountains near the Lochsa River, state officials said.
"I just wanted to beat my buddies to the punch, but I didn't know I'd beaten everybody in the state," said Millage, 34, who has hunted in Idaho for 22 years. "It was really an adrenaline rush to have those wolves all around me, howling and milling about after I fired the shot."
It remained unclear, however, just how much longer hunters would have to thin the wolf population in Idaho and Montana, which is scheduled to open its season in two weeks.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Montana was expected to rule soon on a request by environmental groups to stop the hunts in both states.
"The human population successfully eradicated wolves from this region in the early part of the 20th century, and it would be a true shame after all the efforts that went into recovery if that happened again," said Jenny Harbine, an attorney for Earthjustice, a plaintiff in the case.
An estimated 1,650 of the animals now live in the Northern Rockies thanks to a controversial reintroduction program that started in 1995.
Idaho set a quota of 220 wolves for this hunting season as part of its plan for managing the wolf population. The quota is 75 in Montana.
Idaho officials say they have no idea how many hunters headed into the woods to track the predators. State rules require hunters to notify game officials within 24 hours of a wolf kill and present the skull and pelt to wardens within five days.
So far, Idaho has sold more than 10,700 wolf permits, mostly to hunters who will head to the backcountry next month when elk and deer season begins. Hunters in Montana snatched up more than 2,600 tags on Monday, the first day of sales for the upcoming hunt.
The wolves were removed from the endangered species list in those states just four months ago. The environmental groups fear there aren't enough state protections in place to maintain their comeback.
The creatures were once abundant across North America, but by the 1930s had been largely exterminated outside Alaska and Canada.
About 300 wolves in Wyoming are still under federal protection because the government has not approved the state's management plan.
Last year, about a dozen wolves were killed in Wyoming during a brief period when the state management plan declared wolves wandering outside established recovery zones could be shot and killed on sight. That policy was later scrapped by a federal judge.
Idaho officials and hunting guides say the opening weeks of the season are likely to be slow.
Outfitters said they are not booking trips for hunters exclusively looking to bag a wolf. But guides are encouraging clients to buy wolf tags to have handy when tracking deer and elk later this fall.
"Any success we have with wolves will be more of a happenstance sort of thing," said Richard Huff, a guide for Silver Spur Outfitters and Lodge near Grangeville.
Wolves are difficult to track because they move 30 to 50 miles a day, and hunters can't use bait or artificial calls.
"But I can tell you if I see one it's going to be adios," Huff said.