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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 7:50 EDT

Gray Wolves Face an Uncertain Future

February 22, 2008

Following a 13 year restoration effort, 1,500 Gray wolves now inhabit the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and federal authorities say the wolves will now be removed from the official endangered species list.  

Gray wolves were almost completely exterminated in the United States a hundred years ago, and the successful restoration represents a dramatic turnaround for the animals.

“Gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains are thriving and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act,” said Interior Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett in an Associated Press report. “The wolf’s recovery in the Northern Rocky Mountains is a conservation success story.”

The conservation efforts have been unpopular with ranchers and many others in the region since the program began over ten years ago.  Even today some state officials would like to see the Gray wolf population significantly reduced, and plan to allow hunters to target the wolves as early as this fall.

Environmental groups critical of such hunts say the government should be moving in the opposite direction, instead restoring wolves to areas where they are not now found.  Some of the groups plan to sue to block the wolves’ delisting from the endangered species list and to reinstate federal protections for the animals.

The wolves will be formally removed from the endangered species list 30 days after the federal government’s decision is published in the Federal Register, which is expected next week.

“The enduring hostility to wolves still exists,” said Doug Honnold, an attorney for Earthjustice, who is preparing the lawsuit.  “We’re going to have hundreds of wolves killed under state management. It’s a sad day for our wolves,” he told Associated Press.

Federal officials said plans submitted by the three states indicate they would likely keep between 900 and 1,250 wolves for the foreseeable future.

As the wolves expand into new areas they have increasingly preyed upon livestock.   Ranchers and wildlife agents have made more wolf kills in response to these livestock conflicts, a practice allowed under the Endangered Species Act.

Wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have already begun crafting rules for wolf hunts. Officials say the hunts will be similar to those for other big game species such as mountain lions and black bears.

In Montana, state wildlife commissioners adopted regulations this week for a hunt to begin this fall. Idaho also is looking at a fall hunt, and Wyoming plans to complete its plans in the next few months.

Limits on how many wolves can be killed in each state have not been set, and public hunting could significantly decrease the size of the wolf’s range, reducing chances that the wolves would spread to neighboring states such as Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

724 wolves have been killed legally during the past 20 years, with about the same number killed illegally by poachers, although the total wolf population has been growing at 24 percent each year.

Ed Bangs, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who led the wolf recovery effort, said in an Associated Press report, “We’ve been managing wolves pretty aggressively for livestock problems, but there are still a ton of wolves over a big area.”
 
The wolf was almost eradicated in the Western U.S. through a 1930s government program that involved widespread poisoning of wolves.   50 years later, the wolves occupied just 200 square miles of land around Glacier National Park near the Canadian border in Montana.   The wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, and the government has spent over $27 million on restoration throughout the Northern Rocky Mountain region.

In the mid-1990s, the government reintroduced 66 wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.  Since that time the wolf  population has grown rapidly, and the animals now inhabit 113,000 square miles, according to Bangs.

The only other areas within the lower 48 states where gray wolves live are the western Great Lakes region and the Southwest. 

Last year, 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin were removed from the endangered list last year.  But a reintroduced population of dozens of wolves in New Mexico and Arizona is still struggling to increase. 

On Wednesday, the organizations Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resource Defense Council filed a petition with the Department of Interior arguing that new wolf populations should be established in Maine, New York, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Washington and possibly New Hampshire, Texas and portions of the mid-Atlantic region.

However, the next day federal officials said there were no immediate plans to reintroduce wolves into any other states or regions.

Daniel Pletscher, an independent wolf biologist and director of University of Montana’s wildlife biology program, told associated press would be “shocked” if the wolves end up on the endangered list again.   He explained that tolerance of wolves has grown immeasurably since the species was nearly exterminated.

“The last thing any of the states want is for wolves to be re-listed by the federal government,” he said.