HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioners on Wednesday increased the bag limit from one to five wolves per person and extended the state's next hunting season, but they also set new restrictions in areas adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.
The commission voted to loosen hunting regulations during its meeting in Helena in an attempt to further decrease the state's wolf population. They amended their plans and set new quotas around Yellowstone after park administrators expressed concern over the effects on the wolf population there.
Hunting and trapping wolves next to Yellowstone, which is a no-hunt zone, flared as an issue after several Yellowstone wolves wearing radio tracking collars were shot last year by hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion said the limits are the result of an attempt to reach a middle ground.
"It's not going to cause a long-term threat to the wolf population there," Vermillion said.
There is no statewide quota limiting the total number of wolves that can be killed during the season, but in two special wolf-management units north of Yellowstone, the commission limited the total number of wolves that can be killed to seven.
Hunters and trappers will only be allowed to take one wolf each in those areas.
To the west of Glacier National Park, a quota of two wolves has been set in that management unit, the same as last year.
The rifle season for wolves will run from Sept. 15 to March 15, giving hunters a six-month season this year. The trapping season, the state's second, will again run from Dec. 15 through Feb. 28.
Archery season will be from Sept. 7 through Sept. 14.
Opponents of the new regulations wanted an even lower quota around Yellowstone, saying the combined effects of Montana's and Wyoming's hunts would likely hurt the park's wolf population. They also objected to lengthening the rifle season beyond February, saying that is the time when female wolves are pregnant.
"Yellowstone's wolf packs are the foundation for the ecosystem's wolf population and must be provided special considerations," said Bart Melton of the National Parks Conservation Association. "It's imperative that we protect this iconic species adjacent to the park as well as the vibrant wolf-related tourism that benefits our local economy."
Wolf opponents argued the animals' burgeoning population hurts other big-game animals and results in more livestock being killed. Blake Henning of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said the National Park Service's lack of wildlife management creates problems for hunters and ranchers outside the park.
"We don't believe the park needs special protections or designations for its wolves," Henning said.
In all, nearly 25,000 people submitted comments on the plans to loosen regulations for the upcoming hunt since the commission first announced the proposal in May.
A total of 225 wolves were killed by hunters and trappers last season. Montana Fish and Wildlife estimated the state's wolf population at 625 at the end of 2012, a decline of about 4 percent from 2011.
Congress lifted federal protections of wolves in Montana and Idaho in 2011, handing management over to those states and allowing them to hold hunts. Wyoming held its first hunt last year.
Montana's management plan calls for a population of at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs within its borders.