The big question for wolf hunting in Montana is where to go from here.
The state's first fair-chase wolf hunt ended Nov. 16, with 72 wolves out of a statewide quota of 75 being taken.
That was close enough for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to pull the plug on the season, lest the hunt go over quota.
Had the quota not been approached, the season would have run through Nov. 29. Up front, FWP said the season would be a learning experience. As much as it was a hunt to manage wolves, it was also an experiment to see how a wolf season would work and how a hunt should be run.
"We feel pretty good about how the season went. We need to make some adjustments and perhaps create some sub-quotas in some areas," said Shane Colton, Montana FWP Commission chairman from Billings.
"But overall, this season was a clear indicator that the state of Montana and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks can manage wolves responsibly and we should be able to continue to do so," he said.
In Idaho, hunters as of Wednedday had killed 120 wolves, 100 below the quota established for a season that extends in some of the state's 12 hunting zones until March 2010. The Idaho season began in October, and several units have closed because hunters filled the quota for that area.
In Montana, the population statewide was about 500 wolves at the end of 2008 in 84 verified packs with 34 breeding pairs. The Rocky Mountain region has about 1,650 wolves.
That 72 wolves were actually taken by hunters came as something of a surprise, considering the fact that wolves are generally very secretive and are considered difficult to hunt.
"Wolf numbers are clearly robust. The fact we reached a quota shows that the numbers are robust. There wasn't anyone that thought we were going to get more than about 45," he said.
The early-season hit on the Cottonwood Pack in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness near Yellowstone National Park, including the taking of the alpha female which had been tracked by radio for five years by researchers, caused a stir in the scientific community.
But Colton said that aside from pointing out the need for sub-quotas, it wasn't really a problem in terms of wildlife management or damage to the wolf population. Yellowstone is closed to hunting. Montana was not. Wolves do move back and forth across the political boundary in between.
Wolf hunter numbers came as a bit of a surprise with 16,500 individuals purchasing licenses. With a quota of 75, that meant just one out of every 208 hunters would fill a tag, a hunting success rate of less than half of 1 percent.
But another reality is that the $325,859 generated by those license sales isn't going to come anywhere close to paying the bills for wolf management in the state.
And all plans may change depending on what happens in the courtroom.
A lawsuit to end wolf hunting and put wolves back on the endangered species list filed by 13 environmental groups will be heard in federal court in Missoula sometime early next year.
Among the issues in the suit is that you can't delist wolves in Montana and Idaho while keeping the contiguous wolf population of Wyoming on the list.
In the meantime, Colton and FWP feels the state's first fair-chase wolf hunt did achieve its goals.
"We're going to digest the information from this year's hunt," he said. "We're going to look at what we want to do for overall wolf numbers. This is a species that will need continuous management and observation."