BOISE, Idaho — The federal government may lift protections from northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves by March, but a state wildlife manager said Thursday he expects environmentalists' lawsuits over Idaho's management plan will delay legal wolf hunts for the foreseeable future.

Wolves received Endangered Species Act protections in 1973 after being hunted to near extinction in the lower 48 states. Since they were reintroduced to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in 1995, their numbers have increased to more than 1,500 in the region, with about 800 of those in Idaho.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees protected species, will likely announce a delisting rule in late February, with final action possible a month later, said Jon Rachael, a regional manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

"We all have the full expectation that there will be litigation during that period," Rachael told 70 people at a meeting about the state's proposed wolf management plan. "That's anybody's guess as to how long that takes to sort out."

Though the wolves have thrived in Idaho, finding common ground among environmentalists, ranchers and hunters over how best to manage them hasn't been easy. After nine December meetings about the proposed wolf plan, the state is taking public comment through Dec. 31 at

Wildlife biologists estimate there are 41 breeding pairs in Idaho, in 72 packs.

The state's plan calls for maintaining wolf numbers at more than 15 breeding pairs, above the level of 10 pairs that could trigger fresh federal intervention. Measures to reduce wolves would include hunting them in areas where they clash frequently with livestock and have made significant dents in big game populations.

Idaho's plan relies on a basic principle: In areas where wolves cause few conflicts, they would be largely left alone. In places like as McCall, Idaho, however, with many wolves and frequent clashes with livestock, the state could allow hunting from September through March, as well as intensive trapping and official control efforts.

Manipulating the wolf population will need to be modified from year to year — in part because wolves will likely become more difficult to find once they learn people are shooting at them, Rachael said.

Some environmentalists Thursday were angered by Fish and Game's plan because it suggests the wolf population could be slashed to a minimum of just 104 animals — and still meet federal survival mandates. The state agency is focusing too much on killing wolves, not protecting them, they said.

"The bottom line is, Idaho wants to manage for as few wolves as it can get away with," said Suzanne Stone, a field representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

Natural resource groups were more supportive of the state's plan.

"We were adamantly opposed to their reintroduction," said Wally Butler, a livestock specialist with the Idaho Farm Bureau. "We now know they're here to stay. So it's very important to get them delisted and under state management, so we can have a sustainable population."

Some hunters blame wolves for killing or chasing elk and mule deer and making them more difficult to shoot.

Fish and Game officials follow hunter sentiment closely, largely because the agency gets about $33 million annually from general licenses, including for deer and elk, most from out-of-state hunters.

"They're going to start losing big money," said Tim Baldwin, a Boise hunter who attended Thursday's meeting. "I'm very concerned about big game hunting and the way we're heading with the wolf."

Twelve years after wolves' reintroduction, Rachael said the debate in Idaho continues to be a "careful dance," one that pairs off the federal mandate to ensure the wolves' survival with the competing interests of a public that either loves or hates the animals.

"We've got the social values of an extremely diverse public," Rachael told the group. "This is the start, and we're going to have to learn as we go along."