SALMON, Idaho Federal wildlife officials have proposed letting Idaho kill scores of wolves in what would be largest government-sanctioned wolf culling in the state since the animals were reintroduced to the northern Rockies 15 years ago.
The Fish and Wildlife Service plan would permit state game officials to carry out a 75 percent reduction in a wolf population blamed for decimating elk herds in a hunting area in north-central Idaho near the town of Grangeville.
Under a plan sure to be fiercely debated during a 30-day public comment period, wolf packs there will be thinned from about 80 animals to no fewer than 20 over the next five years through a combination of trapping and aerial hunting conducted by state wildlife managers.
An estimated 1,700 wolves roam parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, all of them generally protected from sport hunting -- even though they can be shot by ranchers whose livestock are attacked -- under the Endangered Species Act.
The statute, however, lets states petition the federal government for permission to carry out lethal wolf-control measures in order to protect other wildlife and livestock.
The majority of wolves in the Northern Rockies are designated as part of certain "experimental" packs subject to these wildlife management waivers.
The Fish and Wildlife Service proposal, responding to such a request from Idaho, comes as a federal judge in Montana is considering whether management exemptions are ever warranted when it comes to the wolves in the three-state region.
Wolf advocates say habitat destruction and over-hunting are significant factors in the decline of elk in the Grangeville area.
"We want to make sure that the Fish and Wildlife Service issues a science-based response, and it's not just another avenue for blaming wolves," said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
But a Grangeville hunting outfitter said thinning wolf packs there is long overdue. John Law, who guides elk hunts, said big-game populations in the region will not recover unless the government acts soon. He said a local economy that once depended on logging now relies on outfitting.
(Editing by Steve Gorman)