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Delisting of wolves raises hackles

With wolves’ numbers rising, federal government – and many in West – want to take them off endangered species list. Environmentalists warn that it’s too soon.

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The court is expected to rule May 29 on a preliminary injunction halting the de­listing. The US Fish and Wildlife Service sought to delay the case. But in an order last week, US District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula wrote: “The court is unwilling to risk more [wolf] deaths by delaying its decision on plaintiff’s motion for preliminary junction.”

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Scientists say reintroducing wolves has led to ecosystem benefits. Thin­ning of overpopulated elk in the Yellowstone area, for example, has helped rejuvenate overbrowsed plant species.

Writing in the journal Biological Con­servation, researchers William Rip­ple and Robert Beschta at Oregon State University in Corvallis say they’ve document­ed “the first significant growth of aspen in over half a century” in Yel­low­stone. “Wolves appear to represent a key component in helping to passively restore these complex and wild ecosystems,” they write.

This has made rivers and streams healthier, leading to better habitats for beaver, songbirds, and native trout. Wolves also have reduced the coyote population and improved the health of elk and deer herds by removing diseased animals.

Recent advances in population genetics have led other scientists to conclude that the reduced numbers outlined in state plans for wolf management could lead to inbreeding and genetic deterioration. Biology professor Robert Wayne at the University of California, Los Angeles, has concluded that 300 wolves in the region “severely underestimates” the number required for a healthy wolf metapopulation, as he stated in a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. More than 250 other scientists signed a similar letter to the agency, and several studies conclude that 2,000 wolves are needed to maintain the species.

But opposition to increasing (or even maintaining) wolf numbers is fierce.

Livestock have been killed by wolves, and hunters fear that the wolves’ return threatens game animals as well.

But state game agencies report that elk populations are at or above population management objectives. Hunters in Wyoming killed 22,635 elk last year, 1,542 more than the year before.

Many times more cattle and sheep are killed by coyotes, vultures, or domestic dogs (or stolen by rustlers) than are lost to wolves, says the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Between 1987 and 2005, 528 cattle and 1,318 sheep were confirmed lost to wolves, and 396 wolves were legally shot by ranchers or killed by government control efforts, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since 1987, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife has maintained a trust fund to compensate farmers and ranchers for loss of livestock to wolves. So far, 738 payments (some involving more than one stock animal) have been made totaling just over $1 million.