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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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Peterson laments that wolf packs are moving out of the mountains and onto the prairie where his own family ranches. But his fears would be lessened, he says, by regulations giving ranchers more latitude to control wolves without having to worry about being charged with a federal crime.

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A little more compromise may be just what's needed to maintain a certain tolerance for any kind of wolf management now. Indeed, L. David Mech, an eminent wolf biologist in St. Paul, Minn., says people who love wolves have to embrace a paradox: In order for wolves to be accepted by people in rural areas, the problem animals are going to have to die. Sometimes it will even mean removing entire packs, but it's better than having none at all.

Mr. Mech says he believes that environmentalists filing lawsuits to block delisting and stop sport hunts of wolves in the West made a serious miscalculation. They lost the support of politicians confronting a backlash from constituents claiming that growing wolf numbers are hurting livestock and big-game animals. It led, he believes, to the Tester-Simpson legislation and could have negative consequences for other species in the future.

Still, even some environmentalists who didn't like Congress making the decision to delist believe that wolves are ready to move out from under federal stewardship. Mr. France, for one, says he's confident that state wildlife agencies can properly set wolf kills and manage populations. Eventually, he believes, wolf hunts will become normalized the same way they are for bighorn sheep, deer, and antelope.

"Wolves are not only resilient, but they'll become more elusive with hunters pursuing them. I think it's going to be difficult for states to take as many as they want to," he says, noting that wolves could become relisted if states decimate populations.

More important than setting any target number for wolf populations will be the impact the predators are having on the ground, which can be both propitious and problematic. Wolves, after all, are part of the natural balance. It's one reason they were reintroduced in 1995 to Yellowstone, besides the philosophical rationale of returning a species that was once systematically erased from the world's first national park.

Franz Camenzind, a conservation biologist in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and wildlife documentary filmmaker, notes that before wolves were reestablished in the park, ranchers outside Yellowstone were complaining about too many elk. Studies confirmed that they were overeating the park's northern grasslands and browsing so heavily on aspen and willow that no young trees were sprouting, destroying the forest.

Wolves brought fundamental changes to the ecosystem, helping to reduce the size of Yellowstone's largest elk herd from a high of 20,000 in the late 1980s to 4,600 today. The rapid decline triggered a backlash from hunting guides, who argue that wolves have eaten too many game animals. They predict economic and environmental calamity. A parallel decline in elk herds has happened in Idaho, where the state is planning an ambitious culling of wolf packs. Montana, too, hopes to kill 220 wolves in autumn sport hunts, or about one-quarter of the state's wolf population.

As elk numbers have dropped, so has the number of wolves inside Yellowstone, in part because of the lack of food. Researchers counted some 94 wolves in northern reaches of the park in 1997 and fewer than 40 in 2010.

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