Idaho hunters planned to take aim at formerly protected wolves Tuesday for the first time in decades, though a federal judge was considering an injunction that could make the hunt short-lived.
Reintroduced into the Yellowstone and central Idaho wildernesses in the mid-1990s, the predators have grown to number more than 1,600 in the region. Some are known to have ventured into Utah, though no breeding pack is yet confirmed here.
"There's no question that if Idaho starts harvesting wolves, it will slow down the expansion into Utah," said Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.
His group plans to ask Utah to approve a hunt for wayward wolves in the portion of the state where they're not federally protected: from Interstate 84 at the Idaho border southeast to I-15 and up Weber Canyon to I-80 and the Wyoming border.
"It's absolutely critical and vital to protect the interests of the West's ungulates [wildlife herds] and livestock," Peay said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has signed off on the hunt in Idaho and one set to begin in Montana on Sept. 15. Wyoming's management plan remains in dispute, and no hunt is authorized there.
A federal judge on Monday heard arguments from the environmental law firm Earthjustice but did not immediately decide whether to halt the hunts. Environmental groups argue that hunting will jeopardize long-term recovery in the region.
Idaho's hunt allows for killing 220 wolves this season. Montana's would take 75.
More than 9,000 hunters in Idaho have purchased wolf tags, according to The Associated Press.
Utah Division of Wildlife Services mammal specialist Kevin Bunnel said it's unclear how an Idaho hunt will affect wolf colonization of Utah, though he does not expect it to blunt recovery to the north.
"They're hunting them in a way that's responsible and I don't think they're going to put the existence of the wolf population in Idaho or Montana in jeopardy," he said.
Bunnel continues to investigate Utah wolf sightings, which peak from fall through spring.
Salt Lake City-based Western Wildlife Conservancy Director Kirk Robinson said wolves may yet breed in Utah despite Idaho's hunt.
Wyoming's mountains are a better pathway into the state than Idaho's Snake River Plain, he said.
Still, he called the hunts "expressions of hostility" that aren't based on science. Elk and other wildlife continue to thrive in Idaho, he said. He expects that wolves in Utah -- for instance on the north slope of the Uintas -- would improve watersheds by moving around grazing elk and deer.