By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON Idaho (Reuters) - Conservationists claimed victory on Tuesday after Idaho wildlife managers suspended the killing of wolves in a protected wilderness area for preying on elk prized by commercial hunters.
The state's Department of Fish and Game hired a hunter last year to trap and kill wolves in the central Idaho mountains, responding to complaints from sportsmen who say the wolves threatened big-game animals.
Wolves were released in the area in the mid-1990s by federal biologists seeking to restore a Northern Rockies population that had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to near-extinction.
Amid opposition to the reintroduction by ranchers and hunters, wolf numbers rebounded quickly and the population was removed from the federal endangered and threatened species list, allowing them to be hunted again.
The push by state wildfire managers to kill wolves was challenged by a lawsuit from conservation groups represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice that said it violated principles of limiting human intervention in wilderness areas.
The state had intended to resume the program in December, aiming to cut by 60 percent the number of wolves in a protected river corridor in an area managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Overall, Idaho aims to reduce its total wolf population to 150, from about 600 now, through recreational trapping and hunting, and state wolf-control actions including shooting from aircraft.
An Idaho wildlife manager submitted a statement to a federal court last week saying the state would not conduct further wolf-control measures in the wilderness before Nov. 2015.
Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso said conservationists will remain vigilant since the reprieve may be temporary.
He said Congress had intended the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness as an area where landscape and animals would be untrammeled by man.
"This does not mean going in and exterminating wolves to boost game populations for professional hunters," Preso said.
Jeff Gould, Idaho Fish and Game wildlife bureau chief, said in an affidavit that wolves had more impact than expected on elk populations.
"The human intervention of wolf reintroduction had negative effects greater than the federal government anticipated to area elk herds, whose value ... was a significant factor in (the agency's) support for its wilderness designation," he said.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)