for National Geographic News
Gray wolves in the U.S.'s northern Rocky Mountain region may become the victims of their own success.
Last week the U.S. government proposed removing the animals from the endangered species list, citing a healthy rebound in numbers since wolves were reintroduced to the area in the mid-1990s.
If the proposal passes, within a year state rather than federal officials will be in charge of managing the gray wolves.
The move has many conservationists howling, because leaders in three of the affected states have said that they will reinstate wolf hunting.
In particular, Idaho Governor C. L. "Butch" Otter has stated that his personal preference is to reduce wolf numbers from the current 650 animals in that state to 150—although he intends to leave the task of setting population goals to the state's fish and game department.
More wolves, Otter and other critics say, increase the risk that the animals will kill cattle and threaten reserves of game animals.
But Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery coordinator, said that the states will likely reduce their wolf numbers because of a nonscientific factor: a lack of human tolerance.
"Whenever you start talking about wolves, it is never actually about wolves," he said. "It's always about what people think about wolves."
Gray wolves were hunted to near extinction in the western U.S. in the 1800s and early 1900s. The animals received federal protections under the Endangered Species Act in 1974.
In 1995 the wolves were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain region as part of a program to revitalize their dwindling numbers.
Federal guidelines required Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho to maintain a total minimum of 300 wolves in the wild with 30 breeding pairs—the bare minimum, Bangs says, for keeping up a biologically viable population.
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