In a few short years the animals did bounce back, becoming a success story of the Endangered Species Act.
(Related news: "Thriving Gray Wolf May Come Off U.S. Endangered List" [January 22, 2003].)
From 66 gray wolves that were released over a decade ago, the population has grown to about 1,200 in the northern Rockies. And more than 4,000 of the animals now live in the Great Lakes region.
If wolves are removed from the endangered species list, the federal government will still require each state to maintain a hundred wolves and ten breeding pairs or the animals will be relisted.
But "that is a pretty low recovery goal," Bangs said.
Jeremy Heft, a biologist with the Wolf Education Research Center in Lewiston, Idaho, noted that there is little agreement on the number of wolves that the region can support from an ecological perspective.
"In Idaho we could easily support a hundred [wolves] in a quarter of the state," he said. "There are people arguing that a hundred is too many. That is a socio-economic argument, not a biological one."
Idaho and Montana officials say each state plans to maintain a minimum of 15 breeding pairs. So far neither state has set targets for its total wolf population and both are saying they will reinstate hunting, Bangs said.
"My guess," he said, "is the states will manage at smaller numbers than we have now."
Wolves as Scapegoats?
Though it is not clear how many wolves will survive once hunting returns to Idaho and Montana, both states say they have the same goal: to maintain healthy, biologically sound populations.
Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, said: "We are not going to reduce the population to the floor."
So far Idaho and Montana's wolf-management plans have been approved by the federal government, while Wyoming's plan is still pending.
But conservation experts say that the justifications for hunting wolves are poorly informed.
Bangs noted that of every hundred cattle killed in Montana, wolves take down less than one percent.
Disease, weather, lightning, coyotes, birthing problems, and poisonous weeds are all more deadly threats to livestock.
Suzanne Stone, a biologist with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said that in Idaho more cattle are taken by thieves than are killed by wolves.
Likewise, the claims that wolves are killing off game animals don't stand up to actual tallies, said Carolyn Sime, Montana's statewide wolf coordinator.
According to Sime, elk appear to change their behavior when wolves are in the ecosystem. Rather than linger around creek bottoms, elk move into timber areas.
"That makes it harder to harvest an elk, because hunters have to beat the brush to find them," she said. Other factors such as drought, severe cold, and a variety of natural predators also affect elk numbers.
"The data," she added, "don't support that elk numbers are being diminished by wolves."
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