The US Fish and Wildlife Service this week announced that it will now be easier for ranchers and others in the Northern Rockies to shoot wolves. Some environmentalists and animal-lovers object. But the new regulations in fact are a sign that the wolf - hunted to near-extinction over the past century - is making a healthy comeback.
Gray wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s are thriving, to the discomfort of elk and coyotes, who used to have the run of the place, and to the delight of tourists who gather to catch a glimpse of the mythic animal and to hear its distinctive howl. The wolf's presence there has helped restore the ecosystem to something closer to the natural, which is part of the argument for allowing wolves to live elsewhere as well - as long as they don't eat too many sheep, cows, or game animals favored by sport hunters.
Meanwhile, administration officials say wolf populations in the upper Midwest have grown to the point where they can be removed from the endangered species list, and they've loosened the restrictions on shooting wolves from airplanes in Alaska.
Since the closing of the American frontier, the essence of wildlife management has been the attempt to balance conflicting values, especially when it involves predators who see domestic animals - be they cattle, llamas, or cocker spaniels - as lunch.
Wolves in North America have always been at the top of the food chain, highly efficient pack hunters who dominate other species - except for human beings, who traditionally treated Canis lupus as a threat, a competitor, or a game animal prized for its thick pelt.
Human hunters didn't have the stamina or especially the killing jaw of the wolf. But they did have steel traps and firearms, which more than evened the balance of power. By the 1930s, wolves had been all but eliminated from the Western United States.
Fifty years later, a few Canadian wolves began migrating south along a range from Idaho to Michigan, where they were protected as endangered species by the federal government. Then Uncle Sam, wanting to accelerate that trend to the point where packs could survive naturally, brought a few more wolves into this country.
Even though wolves still occupy just a small fraction of their original range here, the increase in numbers has exceeded expectations.
In the Northern Rockies (Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming) there now are about 825 wolves, with the number in Idaho alone growing from 35 to more than 10 times that number. The gray-wolf population in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan (where they're also known as timber wolves) now stands at more than 3,200. In Yellowstone, the original group of 31 transplanted wolves has grown to about 170 animals in 15 packs in the park (some 300 in the ecosystem that includes the park), which appears to be the carrying capacity for the Yellowstone region.
"It's a biological success story," says Interior Secretary Gale Norton.
Many biologists describe wolves as a "keystone species," which means the effect of their demise could ripple out in crucial and perhaps unforeseen ways. "The animals provide a living laboratory to study how a top predator affects plants and animals within the entire ecosystem," says Steve Williams, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
But over the 10 years since the wolf reintroduction program began in 1995, several hundred cows, sheep, other stock animals and pets have been killed. In some cases, conservation groups reimbursed farmers and ranchers for their loss. In other instances, government officials have relocated or killed what were seen as "problem wolves."
But until now, private individuals needed special permission to kill wolves that had developed a taste for domestic animals. Under the new rules, they may shoot wolves that are harassing livestock or other domestic animals. In addition, the federal government will relinquish responsibility to states and Indian tribes that develop approved wolf-management plans. At the moment, Idaho and Montana fit that category.
The general idea, officials say, is to increase opportunities to remove problem wolves while still protecting the majority of wolves that are not causing conflicts with people.
Conservationists agree that wolf populations must be monitored and even controlled in some cases. But they're wary of the new scheme for doing that.
"The new rule potentially jeopardizes wolf recovery efforts just as they were beginning to show some success," says Nina Fascione, vice president of Defenders of Wildlife.
State officials have a different view.
"The old rule was designed to oversee a small, reintroduced population," says Jim Caswell, head of the Idaho Office of Species Conservation. "This new rule offers the flexibility needed to manage a wolf population that has surpassed 500 wolves statewide."
Despite the better-than-anticipated recovery, wolves remain absent from more than 90 percent of their historical range. And despite the loosened regulations for controlling wolves' relationship to human activities, officials say they intend to manage and protect wolves as an important part of the wildlife scene.
Speaking of the turning over of responsibility for that management to states and tribes, Ms. Norton says, "Our biologists will be asking the tough questions."