State and federal officials killed 20 wolves in Idaho's remote Lolo zone, according to a Wednesday news release from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The operation, carried out with the assistance from the federal Wildlife Services agency, started last week and is now complete. The wolves were shot from helicopters by Wildlife Services agents as part of an effort to stabilize elk numbers there.

The Lolo elk herd has been in decline for about two decades. In 1989, the area had an estimated elk population that exceeded 16,000. It is now estimated to be less than 1,000.

While habitat degradation, along with predation by black bears and mountain lions, has been identified as a key factor in the long-term decline, fish and game biologists have said wolves are now the primary cause of elk mortality there.

"Predation impacts on calf and cow survival is the primary factor right now, rather than habitat, that is limiting recovery," fish and game spokesman Mike Keckler said. "We just aren't getting enough calves to reach a reproductive age."

Department officials hope to reduce the wolf population by as much as 70 to 80 percent in the zone. Last year, 19 wolves were killed in the same manner there and 23 were killed there in 2014. During the ongoing hunting and trapping season, 20 additional wolves have been harvested in the Lolo zone.

Keckler said he did not yet know how much the operation cost. But the money comes from the department's portion of the state wolf depredation control board. Each year, the Idaho Legislature appropriates about $400,000 in general fund money to the board; the department kicks in $110,000 from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, tags and permits.

"This is license money," he said.

Wolf advocates called the control action senseless and said it will likely not be a benefit to elk.

"It's not going to make any difference in terms of elk herd harvest levels," said Suzanne Stone of the Defenders of Wildlife at Boise.

She maintains poor habitat is to blame for low elk numbers and said her organization would continue to pressure U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to stop Wildlife Services from participating in the state's wolf control program.

"They shouldn't be involved in trying to artificially elevate elk numbers for hunters to harvest," she said. "That is not the job for USDA Wildlife Services."

Others welcomed the news. Steve Alder of Lewiston, executive director of Idaho For Wildlife, said elk have no other relief from wolves in remote areas such as the Lolo zone. He contends wolves in areas closer to rural populations are exposed to higher hunting pressure and are also killed when they prey on livestock.

"Anywhere in the state we have backcountry areas, the elk numbers have plummeted," he said. "We can have a lot of nothing, or we can do control measures to have a few elk and a few wolves."

Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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