BILLINGS, Mont. How many gray wolves is enough?
Federal officials on Thursday said the Northern Rockies population of more than 1,500 animals is ready for removal from the endangered species list. They declared victory for a predator that the government nearly wiped out from the lower 48 states decades ago.
Environmentalists, however, say there should be 2,000 to 5,000 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming before the animals lose their endangered status and the job of managing them falls to the states. Plenty of ranchers and other people in those states, they warn, still wouldn't mind the number of wolves dropping to zero.
Since an initial 66 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, the species' population has grown rapidly, even as hundreds were killed to protect livestock.
"Gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains are thriving and no longer require the protection of the Endangered Species Act," Interior Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett said Thursday. "The wolf's recovery in the Northern Rocky Mountains is a conservation success story."
The restoration effort, however, has been unpopular with many in the three states since it began, and some state leaders want the population thinned significantly.
The states are planning to allow hunters to target the animals as soon as this fall, angering environmental groups, which plan to sue over the delisting.
"The enduring hostility to wolves still exists," said Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, who is preparing the lawsuit. "We're going to have hundreds of wolves killed under state management. It's a sad day for our wolves."
Plans submitted by Idaho, Montana and Wyoming indicate the states will likely maintain between 900 and 1,250 wolves for the foreseeable future, federal officials said.
Wolves have increasingly preyed on livestock as they expanded into new territories. At the same time, ranchers and wildlife agents have made more wolf kills, which are allowed under the Endangered Species Act in response to livestock conflicts.
Since the late 1980s, 724 wolves have been killed legally, and roughly the same number are estimated to have been killed illegally by poachers. Despite that, the overall population has continued to grow at the rate of 24 percent a year.
"We've been managing wolves pretty aggressively for livestock problems, but there are still a ton of wolves over a big area," said Ed Bangs, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who led the wolf recovery effort.
The wolf was nearly wiped out in the West through a government eradication program in the 1930s that included widespread poisoning of wolves. Wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, and the government has since spent more than $27 million on recovery efforts in the Northern Rockies.
In the late 1980s the wolf had just 200 square miles of territory around Glacier National Park, in Montana near the Canadian border. The wolf's territory now covers an estimated 113,000 square miles, Bangs said.
The wolf will be formally removed from the endangered species list 30 days after the federal government's decision is published in the Federal Register, which is expected next week.
Meanwhile, wildlife agencies in the three states have already begun crafting rules for wolf hunts. Officials say the hunts will be similar to those for other big game species such as mountain lions and black bears.
In Montana, state wildlife commissioners this week adopted regulations for a hunt to begin this fall.
Limits on how many wolves could be killed in each state have not been set.
Public hunting could significantly decrease the size of the wolf's range. It could also reduce the chance of wolves spreading to neighboring states such as Utah, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
Environmental groups critical of such hunts say the government should be moving in the opposite direction, restoring wolves to areas where they are not now found. In a petition filed Wednesday with the Department of Interior, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resource Defense Council argued new wolf populations should be established in Maine, New York, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, Washington and possibly New Hampshire, Texas and portions of the mid-Atlantic.