The hunt in Idaho is on for wolves

BOISE -- Gray wolves were back in the cross hairs of hunters this week, 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 Tuesday in a handful of districts in the central and northern mountains.

But by midweek, as predicted by some wolf experts, the predators were proving elusive to hunters.

Three hunters reported kills on opening day to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. There were none reported Wednesday.

Shortly after dawn Tuesday, an Idaho real estate agent became the first to report a kill.

Robert Millage 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.

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.

Idaho hunters will have their work cut out for them to reach the 220-wolf limit set by Fish and Game commissioners earlier this month, experts say.

"I don't think they will achieve the goal of 220 wolves unless there's deep snow," which makes them easier to hunt, said Carter Niemeyer, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who now traps wolves for Idaho Fish and Game.

Niemeyer has trapped more than 300 wolves in Idaho and Montana and killed others that preyed on livestock. He figures most of those killed in the first year will be young wolves and pups.

Becky Schwanke, a wolf biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a hunter whose husband and father trap wolves, was more blunt about Idaho hunters' chances for success.

"Good luck," Schwanke said. "There's no way you guys are going to reach 220. I just can't fathom that."

From 1,000 to 1,500 wolves are killed in Alaska each year out of a population of about 7,500 to 10,000. The state has a long season with a generous bag limit and it allows trapping, snaring, baiting, hunting from snowmobiles and airplanes and hunting at night -- all of which are illegal for Idaho wolf hunters.

"The vast majority of wolves taken in Alaska are trapped or snared. It's not common to run into them when you're hunting," Schwanke said.

Wolves have several advantages in the competition for survival against hunters, but also a few weaknesses. Wolves are vocal and can be located by their howling in mornings and evenings.

Plus, most wolves in Idaho have not been hunted and don't feel threatened by humans, Niemeyer said.

But Rick Kinmon, an Alaska hunting guide who targets wolves, wrote the book Hunting the Hunters about predator hunting in Alaska and considers wolves the hardest animal to take in North America.

"It doesn't make them dumb because they've never been hunted," he said. "They still have all their God-given instincts."

On top of their intelligence, they have keen senses of smell, eyesight and hearing and incredible mobility.

"They just learn their country inside and out, and they almost think like a human," he said.

Kinmon figures he's called in more than 200 wolves and killed from 50 to 60 of those during his decades of hunting in Alaska.

"I've never had an easy wolf. I've never had them do something stupid," he said. "I don't want to make it sound impossible, but it's pretty close to that."