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BILLINGS - State officials sought Tuesday to revive gray wolf hunts in the Northern Rockies, even as they entered talks with environmentalists whose lawsuit restored the endangered status of the animals.

Hunters in Idaho and Montana killed 260 wolves last year in the first managed hunts since the species rebounded from near-extermination in the past century.

This year's hunts were doubtful after a U.S. District Court ruling that portions of the wolf population remained at risk.

On Tuesday, Montana asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to commit by Sept. 10 to the state's plan for "conservation hunts" beginning this fall.

State officials said the hunts were justified because the wolf population had exceeded its "carrying capacity" - the number of wolves that are biologically and socially sustainable. They also said the hunts would help curb increasingly frequent wolf attacks on livestock and big game herds.

Idaho plans to make a similar request. Jim Unsworth of Idaho Fish and Game said the state will point to the legal harvest of other protected species such as salmon and bull trout as a precedent.

It was uncertain how many animals might be harvested. State officials were waiting for a response from the federal government before setting any quota.

There are an estimated 1,700 wolves in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana - more than five times the federal government's benchmark of 300 wolves for the species to be considered recovered.

"Montana began 2010 with a minimum of 504 wolves, even after a conservative but successful 2009 hunting season," Joe Maurier, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wrote in a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Director Rowan Gould.

Maurier asked that the federal government issue Montana a conservation hunt permit by Nov. 30.

Original plans called for a hunting quota of 186 wolves this fall in Montana. That would have driven down the population to 439 by the end of 2010.

Idaho had not set its 2010 quota. The state's long-term goal is to reduce its wolf population from current estimates of at least 843 animals to roughly 500.

Federal officials have declined to say if they would allow any public hunting while wolves remained on the endangered list. Even without hunts, wolves are killed regularly in the region by wildlife agents and ranchers responding to attacks on sheep and cattle.

Environmental groups have vowed to stop attempts to circumvent the federal court ruling. Their attorneys were meeting Tuesday with officials from Idaho and Montana and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wolves were removed from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana in 2009 before that decision was reversed in court earlier this month.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled the government ended up violating federal law by stripping wolves of their endangered status in Idaho and Montana while portions of the population remained at risk.

Wyoming's 320 wolves were not taken off the endangered list last year. Federal officials said the state's wolf law was too hostile to the animals, allowing them to be shot on sight in a predator zone covering about 90 percent of the state.

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