Sportsmen's groups from around Montana are asking wildlife officials to move as quickly as possible to implement the state's wolf management plan once the animal is removed from federal protection.

In a letter mailed this week, 13 groups urged the state to rapidly develop a specific plan to begin managing wolves in areas with "serious wolf/wildlife" conflicts, including the West Fork of the Bitterroot where elk numbers have plummeted.

"We are looking for sensible, responsible management based on science and not on social issues," said Tony Jones, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.

Montana will be handed full responsibility for wolf management sometime in the next two months, following an unprecedented move last week by Congress to remove the wolf from Endangered Species Act protection.

Attached to a must-pass budget bill by Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, the rider does not allow for further court review.

"It's what we've been working toward for a long time," Jones said.

In the Bitterroot, wolves have been blamed for the dramatic decline in the elk herd in the West Fork. In the last six years, elk numbers have gone from about 2,000 to around 750.

At the urging of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, the state had asked for permission to shoot up to 18 wolves under Endangered Species Act's 10(J) rule.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended approval of the request. A comment period closed on April 12. The recent congressional action leaves that request in limbo.

Montana Wildlife Federation conservation director Ben Lamb said the sportsmen's groups will urge the state to move forward as soon as possible to reduce wolf numbers in the West Fork area.

"We felt the letter was necessary to ensure that we don't lose any momentum in moving forward," Lamb said. "We think there is a narrow window in places like the Bitterroot."

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials said they understand the sense of urgency in the Bitterroot.

FWP Bureau Chief Ron Aasheim said the department currently plans to present tentative quotas for this fall's wolf hunt to the commission at its May 12 meeting.

The quotas will probably reflect a 5 percent to 10 percent increase over what the department proposed for the wolf hunt last year, to reflect an increase in wolf numbers, Aasheim said.

The 2010 wolf hunt proposed a total harvest of 186 wolves to reduce the population by 13 percent. That hunt was blocked by a federal court order.

The commission is scheduled to make its final decision on the 2011 wolf hunt at its July meeting, Aasheim said.

However, the timeframe is contingent on when the Secretary of Interior reissues the 2009 wolf delisting rule.

"The Secretary of Interior has 60 days to reissue the rule," Aasheim said. "We can't do anything until that happens. We understand very well the urgency in the Bitterroot. That's why we asked for the 10(J) rule."

Montana will be required to monitor the wolf population and submit annual status reports for five years. Wolves can be relisted if the population falls below recovery levels or the state makes changes that would significantly increase the threat to the wolf population.

"It is going to be very important that this is done right," said Lamb. "I don't think anyone wants to go back and do this again. It was a horrible, horrible experience. The level of animosity grew to a fever pitch."

"If this delisting had come millions of dollars ago and thousands of elk ago, it would have been a lot different," Jones said.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.