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In the face of new laws trapping and killing wolves, groups vie for greater protections

(CN) — Wildlife advocates asked the U.S. Forest Service to double-up on protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana following recent pushes to dramatically cut wolf populations.

The petition, submitted to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday, comes shortly after two of the most wolf-rich states in the nation passed a slew of laws making it easier for hunters and trappers to kill the four-legged predators.

Montana passed measures that greatly expanded the trapping and killing capabilities for wolf hunters, while Idaho passed a law that calls for the killing of up to 90% of the state’s wolf population. Idaho also recently allowed their hunters to peruse the animals after hours with the help of night vision googles and ATVs.

While wolves were once classified as endangered, reintroduction efforts in the Northwest have proven extremely successful and have sent population numbers skyrocketing. But proponents of the new wolf-killing bills say the numbers have grown out of control and need to be curbed to protect local elk herds and livestock.

Others maintain these efforts represent a grave threat to the natural balance of forest ecosystems, one in which wolves have historically played critical roles in. Activists say wolf packs help keep other animal populations in check and deserve the right to thrive just as much as any other predator in the wild.

In their petition, wildlife advocates including the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife added their voices to those expressing concern over these wolf-killing measures. The groups asked the U.S. Forest Service to request a fresh wave of protections for wolf populations in wildlife areas they say face the greatest threat from Idaho and Montana’s new laws.

“Montana and Idaho have declared a despicable war on wolves and on the very idea of wilderness itself,” George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, said in a statement. “The Forest Service has the authority and mandate to protect these special places and their wildlife. It needs to put a stop to this ugly slaughter.”

The groups claim that under the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act, the Forest Service has the obligation to protect certain areas of the wilderness where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” and need to be kept as environmentally pure and untouched as possible. They say these new laws fly directly in the face of that initiative and could upset the delicate balance between predator and prey.  

The groups take special issue with provisions in the new laws that allow contractors and private reimbursement programs for wolf killing. The groups say allowing this privatized, commercially driven approach to controlling wolf populations is a dangerous step backward to the days of wolf bounties in the 1800s and ask the Forest Service to enact new regulations that would out outlaw subsidized wolf killing across nearly 8 million acres of wilderness in Idaho and Montana.

“The Montana Wildlife Federation supports ethical, fair-chase hunting of wolves, but this is anything but ethical or fair chase,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director of Montana Wildlife Federation. “Paying contractors to go into wilderness areas and kill wolves amounts to an all-out eradication effort that harkens back to the 19th century.

“These are wild areas that offer some of the best hunting in the country for all species, and these moves degrade that. It’s disgraceful and it needs to be stopped.”

A Forest Service spokesperson did not respond to request for comment by press time.