COEUR d'ALENE - Panhandle hunters could be stalking gray wolves as early as next month.
Idaho Fish and Game announced on Friday its wolf hunting and trapping proposals for the fall, winter and early spring of 2011-12. If approved by the Fish and Game Commission, a statewide wolf hunt will begin on Aug. 30, 2011, and conclude in most zones on March 31, 2012.
"The intention is not to eliminate wolves," said Regional Wildlife Manager Jim Hayden. "The intention is to manage wolves."
According to IDFG's latest estimates, between 100 and 200 wolves - about 15 packs - are roving through Panhandle forests. Since the department tracked North Idaho's first wolf pack in 1998, the population has increased by an average rate of 23 percent every year.
Many local hunters believe wolves are causing serious damage to big game populations, especially elk.
Calf ratios in much of the Panhandle have remained healthy, IDFG said, but without wolf management predation would likely increase, causing the elk numbers to fall.
Wolf predation has impacted elk herds in units 6, 7 and 9, on the St. Joe and Little North Fork drainages, the department noted. Mid-winter calf ratios have dropped in recent years, and the herds may be declining by as much as 15 percent annually in those areas.
The new proposals allow hunters to purchase two wolf tags per calendar year. They may shoot a wolf with any weapon, and use electronic calls to lure the predators into range.
The plan does not establish a harvest limit for Panhandle units, though some zones will have quotas.
"It's hard for hunters to hunt wolves in the Panhandle," Hayden said. "We just have more trees, a lot more cover."
In 2009-10, the wolf season began Oct. 1 and was extended until March 31. Through seven months of hunting, sportsmen and women legally harvested 27 wolves. Another animal was illegally poached.
This time around, with two months added to the season, IDFG expects a harvest of about 32 wolves.
The department also proposed a wolf trapping season from Dec. 1, 2011, to Feb. 15, 2012, in parts of the Panhandle, Lolo, Dworshak-Elk City, Selway and Middle Fork zones.
Seven of the Panhandle's nine units would be open for snare or foothold trapping. Units 2 and 3 would be closed.
"(They are) near a population center," Hayden said. "There's not a lot of wolves in those units."
Idaho now harbors more than 1,000 wolves, IDFG said. Under the federal rule that removed wolves from the Endangered Species List, the state must maintain at least 15 breeding pairs or 150 individual animals.
"We don't expect to see a harvest that will put us into that critical area," Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said Friday in Boise. "The department has the ability to close the season at any time."
More than 30,000 sportsmen and women bought wolf tags for the 2009 season. Less than 1 percent of those hunters shot a wolf.
According to the IDFG website, the department's objective is to "use hunting and trapping as a means to reduce the statewide wolf population to a level that is sustainable, meets federal recovery goals, and reduces conflicts."
Wolf packs likely entered the Panhandle from northwestern Montana, British Columbia and central Idaho in the 1990s, IDFG said. Some animals possibly ranged from Yellowstone National Park.
The first documented wolf pack in the Panhandle was discovered 13 years ago, in the Snow Peak area.
IDFG will begin accepting public comments on Monday at www.fishandgame.idaho.gov. North Idaho hunters will be invited to an open house this month, Hayden said.
The Fish and Game Commission will consider public comments and set wolf seasons on July 27-28, at a meeting in Salmon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.