Now the wolves are back, with roughly 6,000 in the contiguous United States and 7,700 to 11,200 in Alaska. The Obama administration has declared all but two small populations — Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, and red wolves in North Carolina — fully recovered. On Oct. 1, Wyoming will become the fifth state with a significant wolf population to legalize hunting.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe called the wolf comeback “a great success,” but it means that wolves are now fair game, and he noted that not everyone likes the idea of killing them.
“When you look at our friends in the environmental movement, there are a lot of people out there who just don’t like the idea of animals being shot,” Ashe said. “I understand that, but if you look at the Endangered Species Act, it’s not an animal protection act. It’s a law designed to prevent the extinction of a species.”
But how many wolves are enough?
The Fish and Wildlife Service approved plans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming that require them to maintain a minimum of 450 adults and 45 breeding pairs of wolves. The population now stands at 1,774 adults and 109 breeding pairs, and the agency projects that hunting will bring the number of adults down to about 1,000.
“It’s hard to fathom that you can be deserving of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act on September 30 and on October 1 be open fire,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, said the state aims to keep around 400 gray wolves on the landscape to minimize conflict with ranchers and hunters, who have complained when wolves attacked either livestock or deer and elk.
Montana’s wolf population actually rose 15 percent after last year’s hunting season, to a total of at least 650, prompting the state to allow unlimited hunting of wolves between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28. It also has allowed trapping for the first time.
“Despite the hype, we didn’t go out and wipe them out at the first opportunity,” said McDonald, adding that wildlife managers are seeking “a balance” in which wolves exist but don’t threaten cattle or big-game populations.
Scientists say that wolves play a key role in the ecosystem. Aspen trees in Yellowstone National Park suffered in the decades when wolves were absent, and began to thrive when wolves came back and kept leaf-eating elk in check. Since wolves were reintroduced there in the mid-90s, browsing on the tallest aspens researchers surveyed declined by more than 75 percent, according to Oregon State University ecologist William J. Ripple. This produced other ripple effects, including cooler streams shaded by trees and more vibrant beaver and bison populations that had more plants to eat.