Viewed on a chart, the population of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies – Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – has exploded in recent decades from about a dozen to more than 1,200 today. But is that enough to consider wolves back from the brink of extinction, another species success story like the bald eagle?
In Washington this week, Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett said wolves in the Northern Rockies "are biologically ready to be delisted," meaning they would no longer need to be protected under federal law.
After a century of shooting, trapping, and poisoning that had just about wiped them out in order to protect livestock and game animals, wolves gained protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1974. Then in the mid-1990s, wolves were "reintroduced" to the Rockies region from Canada. Finding the new territory much to their liking, they formed up into packs, produced litters of offspring, divided into new packs, and now roam an ever-widening area. Larger populations of wolves live in the Western Great Lakes region and Alaska.
Even though the US Fish & Wildlife Service would continue to monitor the wolf population for a few more years, the proposed delisting means that state agencies would take over wolf management. Ranchers, farmers, and government agency sharpshooters would be freer to kill "problem wolves" – those that attack cattle, sheep, horses, and other domestic animals. Sport hunters would probably be able to shoot a certain number of wolves as well.
But the proposal, which is as much about politics as it is about biology, is as controversial as the original decisions to protect wolves and then reestablish packs with help from government helicopters.
Under federal law, "endangered" means a species is faced with extinction "in all or a significant portion of its range." Even at their current numbers, wolves occupy less than 5 percent of their historic range nationwide, and critics argue that recovery is a long way from completion.
"The brown pelican, the American alligator, and the peregrine falcon are prime examples of recovered species that now occupy nearly all of their historic range," says Rob Edward of Sinapu, an advocacy group in Boulder, Colo. "Yet because the livestock industry refuses to tolerate wolves, the government has set the bar much lower, and moved much slower."
The proposal is now subject to 60 days of public comment. If wolf delisting goes ahead, Sinapu (the Ute Indian word for wolves) and other groups plan to sue.
"The [proposed] rule will allow the killing of so many wolves that the population will no longer be viable and will in fact quickly revert to endangered," says Michael Robinson, a wolf expert with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. Delisting at this point, says Mr. Robinson, is "blatantly illegal."
But state and local officials in the Northern Rockies are, for the most part, moving in the opposite direction.
Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) wants to reduce the number of wolves in his state from about 650 today to fewer than 150 – barely more than the minimum needed to avoid relisting under the Endangered Species Act. "I'm prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself," Governor Otter told a recent rally of hunters in Boise, according to local and statewide press.
Some in Idaho want to go even further. Ron Gillett, a hunting outfitter in Stanley, is gathering signatures for a state ballot measure that would end the wolf recovery effort. In Idaho last month, a man pleaded guilty to trying to kill wolves using meatballs poisoned with a pesticide. No wolves died as a result, although a coyote, a fox, birds, and three dogs were killed.
In Wyoming, where the Yellowstone Park wolf packs now roam, Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) says that "wolves are causing an unacceptable impact on our elk and moose populations." Political leaders there want to declare any wolf outside Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks an "unprotected predator" that can be shot without question.
Meanwhile, ranchers and environmentalists have been partnering to try new ways of controlling wolves without killing them.
With financial help and advice from the national group Defenders of Wildlife, two large ranches – one in Idaho and one in Montana – are using range riders and guard dogs together with solar-powered electric barriers and alarms triggered by radio telemetry to protect sheep. Neither ranch lost a single sheep to wolves last summer.
This week's federal announcement also included immediate removal of gray wolves from endangered and threatened status in the upper Midwest, where some 4,000 wolves now occupy portions of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Wolves in Alaska – now numbering between 6,000 and 7,000 – have never needed federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.