(Adds number of contestants registering; quotes from participants)
By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho, Dec 27 (Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday denied a request by conservation groups to block a weekend hunting competition in Idaho that targets wolves and coyotes and has been condemned by wildlife advocates as an inhumane "killing contest."
More than 100 contestants from Idaho and surrounding states, including Wyoming, signed up on Friday for the so-called coyote and wolf derby, and sponsors said they expected as many 300 hunters to register by the start of the event.
The two-person hunting teams were to begin fanning out on Saturday morning into national forest land around the town of Salmon in the mountains of east-central Idaho.
The event has drawn staunch opposition from conservationists who claim the tournament is cruel and unsportsmanlike and sets a chilling precedent by inviting children as young as 10 to participate.
But some ranchers and outfitters in Idaho see the competition as a recreational form of wildlife management aimed at reducing the number of nuisance predators threatening livestock and big game such as elk that are prized by hunters.
"This is predator-control time," said Terry Cummings of Troy Idaho, one of dozens of hunters who registered for the derby at a welding and metal fabrication shop in Salmon called Steel & Ranch.
About a dozen sheriff's deputies and police officers stood by to keep the peace in case of anticipated protests that never materialized.
The tournament comes two years after wolves in the region were taken off the U.S. endangered species list. But this weekend's derby is believed to be the first competitive wolf hunt anywhere in the continental United States in decades.
WildEarth Guardians and other conservation groups filed a lawsuit on Monday in U.S. District Court in Idaho, claiming the U.S. Forest Service had failed to properly permit the event and asked a judge to enjoin the contest until federal land managers had a chance to assess its potential impact.
JUDGE RULES NO PERMIT NEEDED
But U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale ruled on Friday afternoon that the hunt was not a commercial enterprise requiring a special-use permit, handing down her opinion just hours before registration.
Dale likened the contest to other noncommercial recreational activities such as camping and picnicking that take place on national forests and do not require a special permit.
"While plaintiffs and others may find the concept of a derby and prizes being awarded for the killing of animals repugnant, hunting is a lawful activity in Idaho," Dale said in the ruling.
She said any commercial aspects of the derby - including collection of registration fees, awarding of prizes and trade with fur buyers for wolves and coyotes killed as part of the contest - will take place at a private business in Salmon and not on Salmon-Challis National Forest lands.
Steve Alder, head of Idaho for Wildlife, a nonprofit that pledges to fight attempts by "animal-rights and anti-gun organizations" to restrict hunting or firearms, hailed the decision as a victory for sportsmen.
"We just have to keep Idaho for what it is," he said, adding that he has cautioned participants not to make a show of the wolves and coyotes they kill, and is banning cameras when carcasses are weighed and measured to determine the winners.
"I'm telling my guys, 'Hunt your wolves and shut up,'" he said.
Bethany Cotton, wildlife program manager for WildEarth Guardians, vowed to continue the legal fight to force federal land managers to require special use permits for such competitions.
"The decision suggests fishing derbies on public lands need permits, but wolf massacres don't - which is ludicrous," she said. "We will keep trying to protect native carnivores just like the public expects."
Salmon-Challis National Forest Supervisor Chuck Mark said the judge's ruling on the derby does not necessarily open the way for more such events on public lands without triggering a review.
"Each and every event proposal will be looked at on its own merits," he said. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman, Gunna Dickson and Ken Wills)