"Delisting the wolf is a very successful step forward in wolf management," said Jess Edberg of the education nonprofit International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota.
"The purpose of having the Endangered Species Act is to prevent extinction. That goal has essentially been achieved, so it's a success story. The ESA was never meant to be a perpetual protection act."
Any continental U.S. gray wolves roaming outside of the Rockies and Great Lakes regions—including a third population in the Southwest—will not be affected by the ruling and will retain their endangered status.
Any wolves that wander out of the northern Rockies DPS would also be federally protected.
But Ed Bangs, the USFWS wolf recovery coordinator in Helena, Montana, said such moves are rare, and the probability of a breeding pair establishing a new population elsewhere is slim.
"The northern Rocky Mountains [provide] unusually suitable habitat," he said.
"There's very little suitable habitat in other places—the habitat has been so modified by human use that wolves are really going to have a tough time fitting in."
Hunter Becomes the Hunted?
The delisting means that state officials and Native American tribes will soon manage their own wolf populations to sustain numbers at a healthy level while reducing conflicts with humans.
Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming have each committed to maintaining at least 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves.
Actual state management plans call for total wolf numbers of around 900 to 1,250 animals in mid-winter, Bangs said. The International Wolf Center's Edberg noted that the new management plans are sure to ignite some controversy.
"Delisting is very alarming for some conservation groups concerned about hunting and trapping laws being set," she said.
"It's also [a concern] among those who feel that, without [hunting] seasons, they are not going to be able to protect their livelihood, whether it's ranching or taking tourists on an elk hunt."
She feels such passions are heightened in the West, where cultural views toward wolves differ from those in Great Lakes states such as Minnesota, where the animals were never eliminated.
"In the Rockies you have a culture where wolves were eradicated and decades later were put here again," she said. "It's a process learning to deal with that large predator."
(Related news: "Brown Bears Released in Pyrenees Draw Farmers' Ire" [May 17, 2006].)
Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are currently developing plans for sporting hunts to control the newly recovered populations, but Bangs believes those increased kills will have little impact on overall numbers.
"The bottom line is right now about 26 percent of all adult-size wolves die or are killed every year," he said.
"Each year we remove about 10 percent of the population due to conflicts with livestock. [Others fall victim to] illegal kills, being hit on the roads, or wolves killing wolves.
"Despite that, the population has been expanding some 24 percent per year. Wolves are incredibly resilient."
Some environmentalists adamantly disagree, which means that before any actual shots are fired, legal action is a distinct possibility.
Still, Edberg expressed confidence that the darkest days are in the past for the wolves of the Rockies.
"USFWS is dedicated to preserving this population. It isn't just going to walk away and let a state kill all the wolves," she said.
"[The wolves] are going to be monitored under a five-year plan to make sure the states do what they said they would do and ensure that the wolf population will never again be placed under the Endangered Species Act."
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