SALMON, Idaho |(Reuters) - Photos of dead and maimed wolves have pervaded the Internet in recent weeks, raising tensions in the Northern Rocky Mountains over renewed hunting and trapping of the once federally protected animals.
Escalating rancor between hunters and animal rights activists on social media and websites centers on pictures of wolves killed or about to be killed. Many have text celebrating the fact that Western states are allowing more killing of the predators.
Commenting on a Facebook-posted image of two wolves strangled to death by cable snares, an individual who identified himself as Shane Miller wrote last month, "Very nice!! Don't stop now, you're just getting started!"
A person going by the name Matthew Brown posted the message, "Nice, one down and a BUNCH to go!" in response to a Facebook image of a single wolf choked to death in a snare.
Such pictures and commentary have intensified online arguments over the ethics of hunting and trapping wolves. The debate took a threatening turn this week with an anonymous email warning that animal rights advocates will "be the target next."
In Idaho and Montana, hundreds of the animals have been killed -- mostly through hunting -- less than a year after being removed from the U.S. endangered species list.
Stripping the wolves of federal protection last spring opened the animals to state wildlife management, including newly licensed hunting and trapping designed to reduce their numbers from levels the states deemed too high.
Since the de-listing last May, Idaho has cut its wolf population by about 40 percent, from roughly 1,000 to about 600 or fewer. Some 260 wolves have been killed in Montana, more than a third of its population, leaving an estimated 650 remaining.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also proposed lifting the protected status for another 350 wolves in Wyoming.
The threatening note received by an anti-trapping group based in Missoula, Montana, this week has drawn scrutiny from federal and local law enforcement.
The group says it was likely singled out because it had criticized and widely circulated a snapshot of a smiling trapper posed with a dying wolf whose leg was caught in the metal jaws of a foothold trap on a patch of blood-stained snow.
VILLAIN OR VICTIM?
Once common across most of North America, wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the lower 48 states by the 1940s under a government-sponsored program.
Decades later, biologists recognized that wolves had an essential role as a predator in mountain ecosystems, leading to protection of the animal under the Endangered Species Act.
Wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s over the vehement objections of ranchers and sportsmen, who see the animals as a threat to livestock and big-game animals such as elk and deer.
Environmentalists say the impact of wolves on cattle herds and wildlife is overstated and that the recent removal of federal safeguards could push the wolf back to the brink.
Wolves have long been vilified in the region as a menace, symbolizing for some a distant federal bureaucracy imposing its rules on the West.
"They're putting us and our way of life out of business," said Ron Casperson, co-owner of Saddle Springs Trophy Outfitters in Salmon, Idaho. "It makes me sick every day I look at this country. These wolves ... I mean, come on."
State wildlife managers had predicted that such passions would ease once the wolves were de-listed and states gained control. But discourse on the Internet and social networks appears to have grown more hostile.
Some hunters have expressed discomfort at the apparent bloodlust unleashed on the Internet, which they see as tarnishing the reputation of a sport that attracts less than 15 percent of Americans.
'SCREAMING FOR MERCY'
"There are two groups -- one supports fair chase and ethical hunting, and the other views the reintroduction of wolves and the recovery with venom," said veteran sportsman Rod Bullis of Helena, Montana.
Idaho Fish and Game Commissioner Gary Power said he was bombarded with letters and emails from people representing extremes on both sides of the debate.
"There are some folks out there stirring the pot: ‘Get rid of government, get rid of this, they shoved it down our throats, kill them all,' and they are adding to the contentiousness," he said.
Animal rights activists said they are sickened at the online flurry of pictures depicting wolf kills, and alarmed by comments suggesting a growing desire to shoot, trap and snare wolves.
"Roughly $40 million has been spent on wolf recovery, and now we are witnessing the second extermination of wolves in the West," said Wendy Keefover, director of carnivore protection for WildEarth Guardians.
Idaho and Montana are required to maintain about 150 wolves per state each year to prevent federal protection from being imposed again.
But Idaho plans to more than double the number of wolves a hunter may take in some areas for the 2012-13 season, raising their bag limit to 10.
Montana is seeking to raise its wolf-hunt quotas, and state wildlife managers are discussing allowing trapping, which is currently illegal there. At least one Montana county is considering a bounty for wolves killed by licensed hunters.
This week's email threat to the animal advocacy group Footloose Montana raised the acrimony to a new level.
The image posted on its Facebook page was taken from the Trapperman.com website, including text that joked about the wolf being shot and wounded by a passersby after it was caught -- "lucky they were not real good shots."
The photo went viral over the Internet last weekend, and on Monday Footloose Montana received the email threat.
The message said "I would like to donate a gun to your childs (sic) head to make sure you can watch it die slowly so I can have my picture taken with it's (sic) bleeding dying screaming for mercy body." Then the email, a copy of which Footloose gave to Reuters, said the recipients would be the next targets.
A Missoula Police Department detective, Sergeant Travis Welsh, confirmed this week that investigators were looking into a "report from a local institution about a malicious email."
Footloose Executive Director Anja Heister said FBI agents had interviewed a member of her group about the threat, but an FBI spokeswoman declined to comment.
By Tuesday, Trapperman.com, a site whose mission statement declares, "Always keep in mind that we are the true protectors of wildlife and the wild places in which the animals live," had removed pictures of dead or dying wolves and commentary.
(Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Sandra Maler)