BILLINGS, Mont. -- Gray wolf hunting and killings in response to livestock attacks have pushed the number of dead wolves to a record of more than 500 this year in the Northern Rockies -- just months after their removal from the endangered species list.
Officials said it's too early to know if the overall population will suffer. It will be months before they can gauge if wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho are curbing the predators' hunger for livestock.
As biologists prepare their 2009 population tally, the results will be closely watched -- both by environmentalists seeking to restore wolves to the endangered species list and ranchers who resent the predators chewing into their livelihood.
The regional wolf count was 1,650 at the beginning of the year. Since September, hunters in Montana and Idaho have claimed at least 203 of the animals, with Idaho's hunting season slated to continue through March. Almost 300 more have been killed by government wildlife agents, ranchers defending their livestock, poachers and natural causes.
That figure includes deaths in Wyoming, where hunting remains banned.
Wolves are prolific breeders that have expanded their numbers in recent years even as federal officials extracted a heavy toll from marauding packs. Wolf attacks on livestock have continued at a steady pace, with more than 375 domestic animals killed in Idaho and more than 200 in Montana through November.
In Montana, agents from the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services are trying to kill up to 22 wolves blamed in recent killings of sheep, cows and at least one guard dog. The wolves are from packs that have repeatedly preyed on livestock.
"We're looking at learned behavior," said Carolyn Sime, Montana's lead gray wolf biologist.
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In Idaho, federal wildlife agents last month shot seven wolves from the Basin Butte pack near Stanley, after its members were blamed for killing 36 sheep and about a dozen cattle since July 2008.
But after the Stanley shooting, wildlife advocates argued the pack was wrongly blamed and complained of heavy-handed tactics -- including firing at the predators from a helicopter in full view of town.
"This pack did not kill 36 sheep at Cape Horn in August 2008," said Lynne Stone, director of Boulder-White Clouds Council, an environmental group based in Ketchum. "But Wildlife Services wanted to blame them, to add to the case to wipe out this pack."
Todd Grimm, of Wildlife Services in Boise, said advocates "are allowed to rumble, but we still have to solve problems."
"There were some discussions. There is going to be some heat taken," Grimm said. "We still had to do something to resolve the issue. With this laundry list of depredations, we felt we were easily justified in doing as many removals as we did."
The only 2009 population numbers to come in so far are from Wyoming, where hunting was not allowed after federal officials said state law was too hostile to ensure the species' survival.
Wyoming's numbers changed little from 2008 to 2009, hovering at just more than 300 animals, said Mike Jimenez with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.