Updated: May 22, 2014 at 7:00 pm
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana landowners could kill a combined 100 gray wolves annually if the predators are perceived to pose a threat to humans or domestic animals, according to a rule that received initial backing from state wildlife commissioners Thursday.
The proposal significantly expands the circumstances under which wolves can be killed without a hunting license.
The Montana Legislature passed a measure last year requiring the change. The legislation didn't define what qualifies as a "potential threat" so the Fish and Wildlife Commission didn't detail it either, spokesman Ron Aasheim said.
Previously, landowners were largely limited to shooting wolves that had attacked or were attacking livestock. Under the new rule, shooting wolves would be permitted whenever they pose a potential threat to human safety, livestock or domestic dogs.
Critics say the proposal is excessive and equates to a year-round wolf-hunting season.
A final vote is scheduled for July.
Between 2005 and 2013, landowners killed 69 wolves in response to livestock attacks. Over that same time period, hundreds of the animals were shot by government wildlife agents.
Separately, commissioners on Thursday tentatively approved hunting regulations for the 2014-15 wolf season.
The annual wolf quota would be reduced from four animals to three in an area near Yellowstone National Park, and trapping for wolves would be allowed for the first time in several wildlife management areas.
Gray wolves were exterminated across most of the Lower 48 states last century before being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s.
The population has since grown exponentially, and there were 627 wolves counted in Montana at the end of 2013.
The animals were removed from the endangered species list in 2011.
During the past year, hunters took 144 wolves in Montana during a season that started in September and ended in March. Trappers took 86 wolves.