Federal officials on Thursday denied Montana's request to hunt gray wolves in response to increasing attacks on livestock and elk, leaving a settlement with environmentalists as the most immediate hope for the state to regain control over the endangered predators.
State wildlife officials hoped to exploit a loophole in the Endangered Species Act and hold a "conservation hunt" for up to 186 wolves this fall.
In a letter denying the request, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Daniel Ashe wrote that the proposal was unlikely to survive a legal challenge.
"We fully support sport hunting as an important and effective management tool for wolves managed under state law," Ashe wrote. "However ... we have concluded that the likelihood of successfully defending such a (hunt) in light of existing case law is remote."
Idaho also has proposed a public hunt. The state's Republican governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter, met with federal officials in Boise on Thursday, but it was unclear if Idaho's proposal had been rejected. Otter spokesman John Hanion described the meeting as productive but declined to release details.
A federal judge in August restored wolves across the Northern Rockies to the endangered species list following a lawsuit from environmentalists.
The number of wolves has skyrocketed since 66 wolves were brought from Canada to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. The population hit the original recovery benchmark of 300 animals a decade ago and at least 1,700 wolves now roam parts of six states.
Montana officials said Thursday that a settlement with the 13 groups involved in the federal lawsuit is possible. That could bring a quicker resolution to the issue than the two alternatives: a pending appeal of the August court ruling or action by Congress.
"I can't see any circumstance now other than an expedited settlement with the plaintiffs that would allow for a hunt," said David Risley with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Agency attorney Bob Lane said he would not release proposals and counterproposals being traded by lawyers in the case because they are confidential. But he said any deal struck would have to be released for public comment before final approval by FWP officials.
Lane said Idaho is watching the negotiations, but so far is not taking part.
The issue has pitted rancher and hunters, who don't like wolves eating livestock and elk, against environmentalists who are championing the case. The lawsuit stopped plans for wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho.
Doug Honnold, a Montana attorney representing groups that won the Aug. 5 court ruling that returned wolves to the endangered list, said he would not discuss the settlement talks.
"If settlement discussions are going to succeed, they are sensitive and they need to be conducted confidentially," he said, confirming there has been a meeting and both sides were talking. "Beyond that, I think it's counterproductive for me to say anymore. We don't intend to discuss these settlement discussions in the press."
The FWP commission also moved forward with plans to appeal to the federal government for authority to let hunters shoot 12 wolves in the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, south of Darby. At last count, 24 wolves were found in the area.
The state wildlife agency's said elk numbers are falling dramatically in the area.
The wildlife department said it can only ask for such a hunt in small areas where wolves are deemed an experimental species. That designation does not extend to the northwestern part of the state.
The department's plan would choose 100 "agents of the state" from hunters who apply for a permit. The hunt could start as soon as Dec. 15 after a public comment period and final commission approval -- as long as the 2008 rule sustains legal challenge.
The wildlife agency said it expects its actual count of wolves to be roughly the same this year as last year, when 524 wolves were found. The number counted by year's end will probably be somewhere between 472 and 576 wolves, said Carolyn Sime, who runs the state wolf program.
Sime said the actual number of wolves in the state exceeds the count by a fair amount because it is impossible to count every animal. She estimated the true number of wolves could be as much as 20 percent higher than the year-end published figure of 524.
In some areas, particularly the heavily wooded and mountainous area of western Montana where it is hard to spot the animals, the number of wolves counted could represent just 30 percent of the actual number of wolves in that region.