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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.

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But even as the wolf hunt is set to step up in America’s wildest reaches, it’s also true that ranchers, who firmly opposed federal wolf reintroduction as it gained steam in the 1980s and '90s, have slowly come to accept the wolf’s return as inevitable and permanent.

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The trapping and shooting of wolves by humans, rancher associations say, is in itself an important conservation measure, forcing the animals to be wary of human populations and pushing them to stay in the wilder, unpopulated reaches of the mountains.

“The reality is my folks aren't in any big rush to get there to try to kill a wolf. They just want the ability to protect their livestock," Bryce Reece, president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, tells The Associated Press. "We are hopeful, by putting some pressure on them, they'll move back into areas where it's less habited and there's less livestock."

Animal ethicists have been fretting for decades about the moment when Washington steps away from the wolf packs it has reintroduced to the West, and whether the conservation framework is sturdy enough to protect the interests of both wolves and humans.

Reintroduction “presents a unique opportunity for reflection about the ethical issues involved in wolf restoration and the development of practical models for how humans can learn to coexist with wolves in an increasingly humanized landscape,” write the authors of “A New Era for Wolves and People,” a treatise on the ethics of wolf reintroduction.

For some in the West, however, the idea of peaceful wolf-human existence remains a pipe dream. “Natural balance is a Walt Disney movie – it isn’t real,” David Allen, president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said recently.

Concerned about such attitudes, environmental groups have fought against dropping the endangered designation, saying that Congress has already allowed preemptive wolf hunts, which, if expanded, could once again drive the animals to the brink of extinction. Environmentalist groups have vowed to try to block the new Wyoming hunts in the courts.

"Wyoming's open season on wolves in almost all of the state would allow aerial gunning of wolves and even killing wolf pups in their den," Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine told CNN. "These policies could drive wolves back into local extinction."

To be allowed to continue to manage the wolves, Wyoming officials must ensure population levels of at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. Federal wildlife officials will keep an eye on the wolf populations in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho for five years to make sure the animals continue to thrive. If not, the wildlife service can once again make them an endangered species.

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