U.S. Wolf Hunts May Kill Hundreds -- Spurs Demand, Ire

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Genetic diversity is considered crucial for a species to survive, especially one that's still struggling to rebound. That's why the hunts would further isolate the three populations, conservationists argue.

"The Greater Yellowstone population in particular is too small to persist in the long-term without wolves coming in from other populations and breeding," said Jenny Harbine, an associate attorney with Earthjustice in Bozeman, Montana.

The tristate region had about a hundred breeding pairs and 1,600 individuals at the end of 2008. Biologists estimate 500 wolf pups were born this spring.

The current population is "right around the corner from legitimate wolf recovery," Harbine said. "But under the delisting, the states are free to aggressively reduce their wolf populations."

Population Management

Ed Bangs, the wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Montana, said the hunts are in line with management plans created when the wolves were delisted.

Those plans call for maintaining a wolf population of at least 45 breeding pairs and 450 individuals across the three states.

After the coming hunting season ends, the tristate wolf population will be greater than 1,500, Bangs noted.

"The [hunts] are not going to have any impact on wolf population overall, or population viability, or genetics, or dispersal, or anything else," he said.

Living with Wolves

The restoration of gray wolves to the Northern Rockies has been controversial ever since the predators migrated to northwest Montana from Canada in the early 1980s.

(Related: "Canada's Rain Forest Wolves a Link to Past.")

The debate heated up when 66 wolves were reintroduced to Idaho and Wyoming between 1995 and 1996, Bangs said.

Environmental and wildlife advocates argued that the gray wolf, a top predator, is vital to the healthy functioning of the Northern Rockies ecosystem.

But many ranchers were concerned the wolves would prey on their livestock, and hunters said wolves would kill too many deer and elk.

The pro-wolf argument prevailed, and now federal and state biologists have determined that wolves have reached sustainable levels and should be managed like any other wildlife species.

"Hunting is one of the conservation tools that lets local people participate in local wildlife management," Bangs said.

Harbine, the Earthjustice attorney, said her clients believe that wolf hunting could be an appropriate management tool—once the population is robust enough to support it.

"I think most people recognize that wolves are here to stay in the Northern Rockies and we simply have to learn the best way to live with them," she said.

"My clients would like to see wolves be allowed to be wolves and have a naturally sustainable population that's not constantly the subject of aggressive population reduction efforts."

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