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Open season: Will rebounding Wyoming wolves thrive without US protection?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service dropped federal protections for reintroduced wolves in Wyoming Friday, part of a decades-long plan to bring back the howling of wolves while allowing ‘trophy hunts’ for the apex predator.

By Staff writer / September 1, 2012

A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

National Park Service/File

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The decision Friday by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to lift endangered species protections for the gray wolf in Wyoming is a testament to the success of the 20-year federal wolf reintroduction effort.

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But the move also opens the door to a bloodier era in which Americans will be emboldened to challenge encroaching packs and lone wolves to protect property and livestock.

The return of the gray wolf continues to rivet the Mountain West, where some 2 million wolves roamed before settlers drove them to extinction by the 1930s. Nearly 2,000 animals and more than 100 breeding pairs – a tiny fraction of their original numbers – now traverse the ancestral valleys and ridgelines of their northern Rockies range.

Along with reintroduced animals in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, states like Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington have also seen naturally migrating wolf populations growing steadily larger, even as hundreds of animals have been culled for intruding on domesticated herds.

“The return of the wolf to the northern Rocky Mountains is a major success story, and reflects the remarkable work of states, tribes, and our many partners to bring this iconic species back from the brink of extinction," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.

Reintroduction of wolves into the heart of American ranch country became one of the defining dramas of the 1990s, pitting agriculture-controlled state legislatures against environmentalists and federal scientists. More deeply, it pitted the symbolism of the wolf as a reminder of a lost wilderness against the pragmatic reality of the intelligent animal’s predation of domesticated animals.

Today, ethicists and conservationists balk at lifting federal protections, especially in Wyoming, where the state will test a new “dual status” designation. It means wolves in national parks, like Yellowstone, will be protected, while any animals that roam outside protected areas can be shot on sight as nuisance or as “trophy game,” with no bag limits imposed on hunters.

The latest wolf count in Wyoming showed a total of 328 wolves, 224 of which have set up ranges outside Yellowstone National Park.

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