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Wolf hunting season opened today in the state of Idaho. Four months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took wolves off the list of endangered species, removing them from federal protection. Idaho says hunters can kill up to a quarter of the estimated 850 wolves in the state. But conservation groups are hoping a federal judge will declare an injunction to temporarily stop hunts both in Idaho and in Montana. Doug Nadvornick of the Northwest News Network has the story.
DOUG NADVORNICK: Milt Turley is happy this day has finally come. The retired teacher and elk hunter is headed for the mountains of north central Idaho today. Does he have his treasured wolf tag?
Mr. MILT TURLEY: Does a dog have a tail? Certainly.
NADVORNICK: Turley is one of several thousand Idaho hunters who have forked over 12 bucks for the right to shoot one of 220 wolves. The Nez Perce tribe in north central Idaho has authorized another 35 to be killed. When the wolves were taken off the endangered list, their management was put in the hands of the states. Both Idaho and Montana soon scheduled fall hunting seasons to control what many saw as an out-of-control wolf population. Edmund Ziegler says the animal competes with sportsmen for prized elk.
Mr. EDMUND ZIEGLER: They'll kill them and let �em lay. They're a pack of dogs and they'll chase stuff down for the fun of it. They might only take a couple of chunks out of it and then let it go for a while because they're already so full from all the other animals they've been eating.
NADVORNICK: In most of Idaho, the wolf season won't open until October 1st. But in a few places, hunters are getting a head start with today's opening. Montana's season starts September 15th. Another elk hunter, Todd Hoffman says wolves have made it harder for him to find elk.
Mr. TODD HOFFMAN: I think it's time to just get the wolves under some management policy so that we can kind of maintain a healthy balance or achieve a healthy balance of wolves and elk and the other prey in the ecosystem.
NADVORNICK: But who should be responsible for finding that healthy balance? Todd Hoffman argues for human management like fish and game officials. Many wolf advocates say humans should stay out of it.
Mr. STEPHEN AUGUSTINE (Member, Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance): I believe, for now, that we should let wolves and their prey balance themselves out.
NADVORNICK: Stephen Augustine is a member of the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance. He protested Idaho's wolf hunting season outside the state Department of Fish and Game headquarters in Coeur d'Alene last week.
Mr. AUGUSTINE: I think we need to find that balance and I don't think we know what it is.
NADVORNICK: That's one of the arguments of conservation groups. On Monday, they asked federal Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Montana to issue an injunction to stop the hunt. There are about 1,300 wolves in Idaho and Montana. Environmentalists say that's a good sign that the wolves are recovering and that they should be left alone for now. In fact, they say the wolves are not decimating Idaho's elk population, the elk are doing fine. Dr. Ken Fischman is with the Wolf Alliance.
Dr. KEN FISCHMAN (Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance): The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has put out a report in February showing in the last three years, the elk herd in Idaho has grown and it's now at an all-time high of 115,000 elk.
NADVORNICK: Idaho has traditionally been a strong hunting state, but even here, the debate rages on about whether or not wolves should be able to coexist with livestock, hunters and their prey. While the hunt has begun today, it may end suddenly if Judge Molloy issues a ruling this week to stop the hunt.
For NPR News, I'm Doug Nadvornick in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.