'Wolves were hunted and killed with more passion than any other animal in US history," according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. As the gray wolf makes a comeback, so does that passion, and with it the need to balance human life with wildlife.
Wolves – predators that play a critical role in the food chain – used to roam widely in America's contiguous states. An estimated 350,000 of them preyed on deer, elk, bison and other animals before the time of Lewis and Clark. But as wolves turned more to livestock, ranchers hit back. By the 1930s, the US government had helped eradicate wolves from more than 95 percent of their former range.
But after receiving protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, gray wolves pawed their way back – this time through the help of a US recovery plan. They're still in trouble in the Southwest. But recently, they were removed from the endangered species list in the western Great Lakes region when they reached a population of 4,000. Last week, they were delisted in three Rocky Mountain states, where they number about 1,500 on mostly federal lands.
But the Rocky Mountain delisting gravely worries many environmentalists. They fear "hostile" laws in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming – where ranchers are not happy with the wolf resurgence. Those laws allow killing that could whittle down the canid population to its federally set minimum of 300 for the region.
That limit may have been acceptable 20 years ago, when the Rocky Mountain recovery plan came into being, but environmentalists argue it doesn't take the latest science into account. Today, many scientists say that larger numbers are needed for a genetically diverse population that can breed healthy pups – in the case of the northern Rockies, about 2,000 to 3,000 wolves.
A dozen environmental groups plan to sue the US Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to use what they call the most up-to-date science to delist the wolves, as the law requires. Even the service's wolf-recovery coordinator agrees the 300 minimum is too low, although the number is based on input from 80 scientists worldwide.
Using "old" science to accommodate business and other interests is a common complaint against the Bush administration. It's not surprising that environmentalists are suing, for it is mostly through lawsuits in the past seven years that they have been able to have species listed as endangered. Environmentalists also argue that the Rocky Mountain delisting releases wolves into a state regulatory environment that won't sustain them.
It's hard to fault states that say they'll live up to a federal minimum. If something is to change, it's the magic number itself. But no matter what a court decides about that, tensions are likely to continue.
Environmentalists say they're not asking much: recovery of a top predator on public lands that can help keep down deer and elk populations and restore ecological balance.
But for ranchers who use those lands, accommodation would take more work: more cowboys to protect herds and to track down fallen cattle that attract wolves.
With predators such as bears, mountain lions, and wolves coming back, the accommodation discussion can't be avoided.