JESSE HARLAN ALDERMAN
BOISE — Gov. C.L. ‘‘Butch’’ Otter says he’ll support public hunts to kill all but 100 gray wolves in the state once the federal government removes the animal from Endangered Species Act protections.
The governor said he hopes to shoot a wolf himself.
The Idaho Office of Species Conservation estimates the state’s current wolf population at about 650, in roughly 60 packs. Otter told The Associated Press after a rally of hunters on the Capitol steps that he wants hunters to gradually kill about 550 of the animals, leaving about 100 wolves or 10 packs, the minimum the federal government would allow before wolves again would be considered endangered.
‘‘That management includes you,’’ Otter told the approximately 300 hunters, many wearing camouflage clothing and blaze-orange caps. ‘‘I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.’’
Idaho Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife bused in wolf opponents from as far as Twin Falls, 130 miles away, for Thursday’s rally with Otter and several state lawmakers. They urged the government to immediately remove wolves from endangered species protection.
Otter also signed a proclamation making Thursday ‘‘Idaho Sportsmen Day.’’ The crowd — including one hunter with a stuffed baby fox around his neck and a sign declaring ‘‘Wolves are illegal immigrants too’’ — stood for more than an hour in the midmorning snow.
They applauded wildly as Otter amplified their position that wolves are rapidly killing elk and other animals essential to Idaho’s multimillion-dollar hunting industry.
But Suzanne Stone, a spokeswoman for the wolf advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife in Boise, said most biological studies show that wolves do not substantially damage elk or other big game herds.
She said Otter’s proposal to sustain Idaho’s wolf population at the ‘‘very edge of the minimum required for survival’’ would return the animals to the verge of eradication.
‘‘Essentially he has confirmed our worst fears for the state of Idaho: that this would be a political rather than a biological management of the wolf population,’’ Stone said. ‘‘There’s no economic or ecological reason for maintaining such low numbers. It’s simple persecution.’’
Wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains a decade ago after being hunted to near-extinction. They now number more than 1,200 in the region.
The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said his agency would start removing federal protections from gray wolves in Montana and Idaho in the next few weeks. Once officially de-listed, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission will decide how many wolves will be culled through public hunts, poison baiting, aerial shootings or other methods.
The wildlife service’s proposed plan for de-listing would have to clear a lengthy public comment and revision process, and likely a spate of lawsuits from environmentalists before state fish and game wardens could draw up guidelines for wolf hunting.
The region where wolves would be removed from endangered status would include all of Idaho, Montana, Eastern Washington and Oregon and a small sliver of northeastern Utah.
Wyoming’s plan is tied up in lawsuits, but the wildlife service is moving ahead with Idaho and Montana, where federal officials have already approved wolf-management plans. Idaho’s plan currently calls for maintaining a minimum of 15 packs — a higher number than Otter’s proposal of 10 packs.
Jeff Allen, a policy adviser for the Idaho Office of Species Conservation, said the state suggested protecting 15 wolf packs to allow ‘‘a cushion’’ between the wolves in state woodlands and the minimum number that federal biologists would allow for the species to remain ‘‘recovered.’’
‘‘Ten is a magic number because you drop below 10 and all of a sudden you’re re-listed,’’ Allen said, adding that Otter and state wildlife officials agree on wolf strategy and will easily be able to reach a consensus on specific numbers.
‘‘You don’t want to be too close to 10 because all of a sudden when one (wolf) is hit by a car or taken in defense of property, you’re back on the list,’’ he said.
Otter said Idaho’s hunters would likely be able to thin the wolf population without forcing the state to rely on more controversial methods, such as shooting from helicopters or planting poison bait.
Idaho’s wolf plan specifies that public hunts are preferred, but Allen said he is uncertain how skillful sportsmen will be at killing wolves.
‘‘I suspect there will be some Idahoans who get pretty adept at hunting wolves,’’ Allen said. ‘‘And, I suspect some will see how hard these animals are to take.’’