Wolves Are Set to Become Fair Game in the West

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The New York Times

Wolves Are Set to Become Fair Game in the West

William Yardley

Wolf season is set to open for hunters in Idaho and Montana. Gray wolves had long been on the endangered list. (United States Fish and Wildlife Service, via Associated Press)

A wolf hunt is set to begin in Idaho on Tuesday if a federal judge does not stop it. It would be the first time in decades that hunters have been allowed to pursue the gray wolf, an animal that has come to symbolize tensions over how people interact with wilderness in the West.

On Monday, the judge, Donald W. Molloy of Federal District Court, will hold a hearing to determine whether to issue an injunction sought by wildlife advocates against the hunt and reopen the question of returning the wolf to the endangered list.

Gray wolves were taken off the list five months ago, after being protected under federal law for more than 30 years. More than 6,000 hunters in Idaho have bought licenses for the chance to participate in the hunt, in which wildlife officials will allow 220 wolves to be killed. In 2008, the population stood at about 850. Montana will allow 75 animals to be killed, starting Sept. 15.

The states' hunts will be over when the limit is reached or when the season ends, which is Dec. 31 in most areas.

"The first day is the best day when it comes to an animal as smart as a wolf," said Nate Helm, president of Idaho Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

The resurgence of the wolf population, rooted in a federal effort to reintroduce the animals to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s, has long angered deer and elk hunters and cattle and sheep ranchers who say the wolves are depleting game and killing livestock. Federal wildlife officials said that in 2008 a record 264 wolves were killed in the region for the legal reason of protecting livestock.

The clash illustrates a persistent divide in the West, where environmentalists and wildlife conservationists have long gone to court to fight laws they say favor powerful groups like hunters, ranchers and others. Wolves have been one of the most tangled issues of late, including in front of Judge Molloy.

In March, the Obama administration announced it would remove wolves from the endangered list. The Bush administration made a similar decision the year before, but Judge Molloy, in a lawsuit by plaintiffs including Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, ordered wolves returned to the list last fall.

In the years since they were reintroduced to parts of the Northern Rockies, including Yellowstone National Park, the wolf population had risen to more than 1,640 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as of 2008. Federal officials say the population has recovered and no longer needs protection as if it were endangered.

Idaho and Montana game officials say their hunts will keep the population from growing and eventually reduce it, while the limits will make sure enough animals endure to keep them from becoming endangered. Idaho game officials say they would like to have a little more than 500 wolves in the state, though the official plan calls for at least 150.

Wildlife advocates cite several reasons for wanting to stop the hunt. They say that the state plans do not have enough protections, that hunting will prevent the wolves from roaming the Northern Rockies freely enough to preserve genetic diversity and maintain access to the proper habitat.

Part of the claim is rooted in the federal government's continuing effort to protect wolves in Wyoming because it has not come to terms with that state on a management plan.

"It's a matter of whether we're going to have a healthy recovered population or isolated animals that are always struggling to survive," said Suzanne Stone, the Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, one of the parties seeking the injunction.

Doug Honnold, the lead lawyer for the environmentalists in the case, said, "Our vision of recovery is 2,000 to 5,000 wolves in a connected population and with a legal safety net to keep them there."

State and federal wildlife officials overseeing the wolf population say the number of wolves is more than enough and that multiple studies, including those on genetic diversity, have established that the animals are roaming widely and intermingling with others elsewhere.

"Clearly, wolves are restored in the Rocky Mountains," said Ed Bangs, the wolf recovery coordinator for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Mont. "They're always going to be here, and nobody is talking about getting rid of all the wolves. That's never going to happen. The population is doing great. There are not genetic problems. There are not connectivity problems."

Mr. Bangs added, "But they're starting to cause a lot of problems, and the question is what's the best tool for the future management of wolves."

He said the wolves had caused about $1 million in livestock losses and other damage.

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