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Why Wyoming wants authority over Yellowstone wolves

Wyoming wildlife officials found 19 elk killed and left uneaten by wolves on Wednesday. They say the politics around conservation stifles their ability to manage the rebounding wolf population. 

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    Officials say wolves killed 19 elk, at this state elk feed-ground near Bondurant, Wyo., without eating much if any of the meat. State officials pointed to the attack Tuesday night as an example of their ongoing inability to do much while wolves remain protected in Wyoming.
    Wyoming Game and Fish Department/AP
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Wyoming wildlife officials were surprised to find 19 dead elk at a state elk feed on Wednesday. They say wolves are responsible.

“If you like wolves, you call it surplus killing,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service Northern Rockies wolf coordinator Mike Jimenez to the Jackson Hole Daily. “If you don’t like wolves, you call it sport hunting.”

Wolves leaving such a large killing uneaten in a single night is unusual, but the intense attention paid to the incident highlights the reality that managing the ecosystem near Yellowstone National Park concerns politics as much as predators.

Mr. Jimenez said the spring snows may have weakened the elk herd, or perhaps the wolves were hungry at the end of winter and simply didn't stop. Since wolves usually kill only what they need to eat, the unusual hunt has spurred debate about wolf management, reported KXLH 9 of Central Montana.

Wolves are listed under the Endangered Species Act, which means only federal officials have the authority to kill them, and only for hunting livestock.

"We are kind of in a bind right now because we don't have any management authority over wolves," John Lund of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told KXLH 9. 

Wolves were once hunted to near-extinction throughout the West, but officials began re-introducing the Yellowstone population in the 1990s amid great debate, Patrik Jonsson reported for The Christian Science Monitor. Their recovery was so successful that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) planned to de-list them in 2012. A federal judge overruled the move in 2014, but during that time Wyoming allowed them to be killed outside of Yellowstone Park.

Ranchers are gradually accepting that the wolves are there to stay, but wildlife officials want them returned to local jurisdiction before tensions grow along with their population. 

Although the animals' situation differs, the debate parallels the argument used to remove Yellowstone's grizzly bears from the Endangered Species list on March 3, a move hailed by FWS as a success story, but criticized by animal advocates as "a couple years too early," The Christian Science Monitor reported. Some said wildlife management was suffering from the politics surrounding conservation.

FWS is "under a lot of political pressure" to demonstrate that the Endangered Species Act works, says Roger Hayden, managing director for Wyoming Wildlife Advocates in Jackson Hole, Wyo. 

His organization fears Wyoming and other states will reinstate trophy hunting for grizzly bears and allow Yellowstone Park's largest living ambassador to be hunted back onto the Endangered Species list. For their part, wildlife officials say the iconic bear is expensive, as they are required to reimburse ranchers whose livestock is killed by grizzlies.

Wildlife advocates likewise oppose the return of grey wolves to Wyoming state control for fear the state would allow hunting that endangers the newly rejuvenated population.

"Wyoming hunted the grey wolves down to the bare minimum," Mr. Hayden says.

For wildlife officials, national politics regulate who can deal with possible imbalances in the ecosystem – and what solutions they can try. 

“Until we get management authority, our options are extremely limited,” Mr. Lund from Wyoming Game and Fish Department told the Jackson Hole Daily. “We are going to continue to look for ways to address this.”

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