By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Conservationists declared victory on Wednesday in a legal battle over Idaho's systematic killing of wolves in a national wilderness area after the state notified federal land managers it did not intend to reinstate a controversial kill program.
The state Department of Fish and Game hired a hunter in 2013 to trap and kill wolves in the central Idaho mountains near Salmon in response to complaints from sportsmen who said wolves in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness – a federally protected area known as the Frank – were reducing elk herds prized by hunters.
The state agency last year suspended the program after the hired hunter trapped and killed nine wolves and as conservation groups, represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, filed suit in federal court alleging the wolf roundup violated principles of limiting human intervention in national wilderness areas.
The state had wanted to cut by 60 percent the number of wolves in a protected river corridor in the 2.4 million-acre wilderness managed by the U.S. Forest Service. In a letter received by Earthjustice on Wednesday, the Forest Service said it had been informed by Idaho Fish and Game that no wolf-control actions would take place in the Frank during the winter of 2015-16.
“We are relieved that (the Frank) will be managed as a wild place with natural wildlife populations, rather than an elk farm, for at least the coming year,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso. “We will remain vigilant to ensure that wilderness values prevail for the long term.”
Fish and Game officials could not be reached for comment after business hours on Wednesday.
Wolves have been at the center of a bitter debate in Idaho and other Northern Rocky Mountain states since they were reintroduced to the Frank and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s after being shot, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction.
Wolf populations in the region have since rebounded and packs in Idaho and Montana were removed from the federal list of endangered and threatened species in 2011, opening the way for regulated hunting and trapping. Wolves elsewhere in the Lower 48 states are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
(Editing by Victoria Cavaliere)