BILLINGS, Mont. — Hunters in Montana have shot about 160 gray wolves as the season comes to a close across most of the state Wednesday — falling short of the state's 220-animal quota.
In portions of the Bitterroot Mountains near the Idaho border, state wildlife commissioners are considering extending the season in response to complaints about declining elk numbers.
But for most of Montana the season ends after sunset Wednesday. The 163 wolves killed through Tuesday equals almost 75 percent of the statewide quota.
Hunters and trappers in neighboring Idaho have killed 294 wolves to date in a season that runs through June 30. Idaho has no statewide quota.
Some hunters and livestock owners want more wolf hunting. Wildlife advocates have urged restraint.
But wildlife officials said the hunt was meant to strike a balance between those two pressures.
"The quota is a ceiling; it's not a basement. If we haven't reached the ceiling we haven't failed," said Bob Ream, chairman of Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission. "It's been a good season and people should treat wolves like other game animals."
Wolves in parts of five Northern Rockies states came off the endangered species list last year under an order from Congress. They remain listed in Wyoming.
Both Montana and Idaho set their wolf seasons with the aim of reducing the predators' population, in hopes of curbing livestock attacks and propping up elk numbers. Elk herds have declined in scattered areas since wolves were reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s, but remain robust overall.
It's uncertain what effect the number of wolves actually harvested will have on the animal's overall population. The most recent population count, from the end of 2010, tallied 566 of the predators in Montana and 705 in Idaho.
The 2011 wolf population count for Idaho and Montana is not expected to be completed until next month, wildlife officials said.
In 2009, when there were an estimated 524 wolves in Montana, computer modeling by state wildlife officials suggested a 165-animal harvest would result in a 14 percent population increase.
Ream said Montana's season could be adjusted next year to loosen hunting restrictions in some peripheral areas of the wolves' range.
He mentioned areas where wolves run into frequent conflicts with livestock, such as the Big Hole River valley south of Butte and parts of eastern Montana that lack the vast expanses of forested wilderness in western parts of the state.
Last month, Ream joined with fellow commissioner Ron Moody to vote against extending the hunting season in the Bitterroot through April 1.
Moody was concerned the proposal would allow hunting during the wolves' breeding season — a concern latched onto by environmental groups that have derided the possibility of hunters shooting pregnant wolves.
Three commissioners voted for the proposal. A final vote is set for Thursday.
Commissioner Dan Vermillion of Livingston initially voted in favor of the measure, but said this week that he was uncertain if he will continue to back it.
Vermillion said wolves aren't the only cause of declining elk numbers in the Bitterroot, with bears, mountain lions and hunting also to blame.