By Matthew Brown | Associated Press

Montana officials want to triple the number of gray wolves hunters and trappers can kill in an area bordering Yellowstone National Park, citing complaints the predators are eating too many elk wanted by hunters and outfitters.

The potential change marks the latest turn in a dispute that kicked off when endangered species protections for wolves were lifted in Montana in 2011.

Park officials and wildlife advocates argue wolves that spend much of their lives inside Yellowstone should be given special protections. But state officials, outfitters and hunters point to elk numbers that have fallen dramatically since the 1990s, when wolves were reintroduced in the park.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks proposal would increase the annual harvest from two wolves to six in a hunting district near Gardiner. That would stabilize the population — most recently tallied at 24 animals — and keep it from growing, according to the agency.

Yellowstone scientists and administrators have sought for years to establish a buffer zone around Yellowstone where hunting would be restricted. Even under smaller quotas, they’ve said too many wolves were being killed once they stepped into Montana.

The quota in a second area bordering the park would not change, nor would a similar quota in an area bordering Glacier National Park in the northwestern Montana. Fish Wildlife and Parks Commissioners are scheduled to consider the proposal Thursday, with a final decision in July.

The higher quota is not meant to reduce wolf numbers, but to strike a better balance with competing interests, said Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim.

Aasheim added that the issue was “a lot bigger than just outfitters,” with individual hunters also worried about fewer elk. Likewise, livestock producers are concerned about wolf attacks on cattle and sheep, he said.

“Our guys are saying we could take a few more (wolves) and get down to a better balance with elk and other species,” he said.

Marc Cooke with the advocacy group Wolves of the Rockies said he’s urging officials to drop their plans to up the quota in the 60-square mile hunting district around Gardiner.

“It’s kind of ridiculous that they would consider bumping it up to six, considering it’s such a small amount of land,” Cooke said. “These Yellowstone wolves and these people who go to Yellowstone to watch wildlife they need to be heard, too.”

There’s no limit on how many wolves can be killed statewide. Hunters and trappers harvested 210 of the animals in Montana during the 2015 season.

A study published last month by researchers from the University of Washington, Yellowstone and Denali National Park found that park visitors were much less likely to see wolves when hunting was allowed outside park boundaries.

Several wolves well-known among Yellowstone wildlife watchers were killed in Montana during the 2012-13 hunting season. They were among 12 wolves living primarily in Yellowstone that were killed that year after crossing into adjacent areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Under pressure from the park and advocacy groups, Montana wildlife commissioners tried to set up a no-kill buffer zone east and west of the town of Gardiner in 2012. A judge struck down those restrictions after ranchers and property rights advocates sued.

A quota of four wolves in the Gardiner area was established in 2013. That was reduced to three animals in 2014 and two last year.