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Wolf wars: Can man and predator coexist in the West?

As the gray wolf comes off the Endangered Species list, new questions swirl about whether the animal can survive without federal protection – and its impact on cattle and other wildlife. The view from one ranch.

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In May, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the removal of wolves from the federal protected list in eight states across the West and upper Great Lakes. The move highlighted – dramatically – how extensive the comeback has been for an animal once exterminated from 99 percent of the contiguous United States. But it also cleared the way for wolves to be hunted, trapped, and more easily killed in defense of private property – something ranchers have long sought. Environmentalists worry this will lead to a shooting gallery for wolves and undermine one of the great wildlife recovery efforts in history.

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Will they survive in great enough numbers? How should they be managed now? And what will happen on ranches like the Diamond G? The answers will affect the fate of more than just an iconic animal and a few head of cattle. It may also affect when, and how, other important wildlife are removed from federal protection – including the famed and feared grizzly bear.

"The Endangered Species Act is a great tool for bringing species back that wouldn't recover on their own," says Ed Bangs, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's longtime national wolf recovery coordinator. "But with wolves the question is, now what?"

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No one disputes the remarkable revival of the gray wolf. In the early 1900s, the predator was hunted almost to extinction, largely at the hands of zealous ranchers trying to protect livestock and game animals such as elk. At the time, the wolf was so despised and feared that killing one was considered a badge of honor, even among people who lived in cities.

The wolf's near-complete demise, its role in the balance of nature, and its almost mythic place in literature and lore made it one of the original species put on the list of imperiled animals created by Congress in 1973. Today, after millions of dollars and more than 16 years of recovery efforts and confrontation in the northern Rockies, the wolf population and range the animals roam have grown even more swiftly than many scientists originally thought possible.

Some 4,200 wolves inhabit a trio of upper Great Lakes states (Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) and another 1,700 wolves live in the West (Idaho, Montana, Wyo­ming, and, more recently, Wash­ington, Oregon, and Utah). When announcing the wolf's removal from federal protection, Mr. Sal­azar trumpeted it as a "tremendous success story for the Endangered Spe­cies Act," even though many en­vironmentalists viewed it as an experiment unfinished.

Officially, the delisting means that management is now handed over to the states, excluding Wyoming, which has yet to draft a plan acceptable to the federal government guaranteeing that wolves will persist. Politicians there have, in effect, classified wolves as vermin, allowing them to be shot by anyone at any time across 80 percent of the state, which critics believe could lead to their annihilation again.

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