By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Conservation groups asked a federal judge on Monday to block an Idaho hunting competition targeting wolves and coyotes that is supported by many ranchers and sportsmen but that wildlife advocates have opposed as a "killing contest."
The so-called coyote and wolf derby is slated to take place this coming weekend near the mountain town of Salmon, mostly on national forest lands surrounding the eastern Idaho community.
Organizers are offering cash prizes and trophies to two-person teams competing to kill the largest wolf and the most female coyotes, as well as in various other event categories. A youth division welcomes children as young as 10 to enter.
Supporters have billed the tournament as a recreational form of wildlife management aimed at reducing the number of nuisance predators that threaten livestock and populations of elk and other big-game animals prized by hunters.
News of the competitive wolf shoot, believed by government wildlife officials to be the first such statewide contest in decades in the continental United States, has galvanized conservationists.
Online petitions criticizing the event as cruel and unsportsmanlike have garnered tens of thousands of signatures. Opponents have inundated the Idaho Fish and Game Department with demands for the contest to be canceled, and several businesses sponsoring the event said they have been subjected to harassing phone calls and e-mails.
In their lawsuit filed in a federal district court in Idaho on Monday, WildEarth Guardians and other conservation groups branded the derby a "killing contest" and argued that the U.S. Forest Service had failed to follow proper permitting rules for an event with "potentially 300 or more contestants shooting coyotes and wolves over two days."
The plaintiffs asked for a court order blocking the contest and requiring the Forest Service to conduct a formal review process to assess the potential impact of such events.
Officials with the Salmon-Challis National Forest did not respond to a request for comment, and tournament organizers could not immediately be reached.
Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes were removed from the U.S. threatened and endangered species list in recent years, opening the way for renewed hunting and trapping of an animal that had neared extinction before gaining federal safeguards in 1974.
Plans for the competitive wolf and coyote hunt have renewed debate over plans by the Obama administration to strip most of the remaining wolves in the Lower 48 states of protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act.
Coyotes have long been treated as nuisance animals in much of the western United States, where they are subject to being killed on sight.
The upcoming derby is being sponsored by Idaho for Wildlife, a nonprofit group seeking "to fight against all legal and legislative attempts by the animal rights and anti-gun organizations" to restrict hunting or firearms, according to the group's website.
Idaho ranch owner and anti-wolf activist Ron Gillett said he has sent messages of support to businesses that are helping to underwrite the competitive hunt.
"It's a good thing," he said of the event. "The only good wolf in Idaho is a dead wolf." (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Dan Grebler)