Earlier this month a judge cleared the way for wolf hunting in Idaho and Montana, ruling it would not irreparably harm wolf populations. On the surface, the ruling seems hardly controversial. Wolf populations have exploded since the animal's reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho - prompting the Obama administration to remove Rocky Mountain gray wolves from the endangered species list. The current wolf population in the region - about 1,800 - exceeds the targets set by scientists in the mid 1990s.
But many conservationists oppose the hunt, citing the wolf's lack of genetic diversity. While the wolf population does exceed the recovery programme's original goal, that number was arbitrarily set, largely out of political concerns. "Common sense tells us," writes Ken Fischman, a contributor to Writers on the Range, "that a few hundred wolves in each state can't be defended as a biologically viable population ... that the full recovery of these ... populations requires not hundreds, but thousands of animals."
This controversy is another chapter in the long battle over wolves, the purpose and spirit of the Endangered Species Act and the very idea of wilderness.
In the 19th century the US government, to protect frontier livestock, sponsored the hunting of wolves and nearly eradicated them from the lower 48 states. The wolf population declined to a few hundred animals from an estimated pre-colonial population of a quarter million. But killing off wolves had unforeseen consequences. Without predators, elk numbers soared, which had devastating consequences on the local vegetation. The elk suffered then, too, their numbers thinned by disease and starvation, and the government was forced to actively manage them.
The wolf, if anything, has been the victim of its own reputation. "We have doomed the wolf not for what it is," wrote Farley Mowatt, "but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be - the mythologised epitome of a savage, ruthless killer." Wolf recovery plans were dogged from the start by political concerns, as ranchers were riled up by stories of wolves slipping across the border from Canada and killing livestock, and a plan for reintroduction wasn't accepted until 1995. Reintroduction only intensified the controversy, especially after Yellowstone wolves preyed on local livestock.
But environmentalists, too, have their own image of the wolf. Arguably it was the wolf that kicked off the nation's conservation ethic, as the protagonist in Aldo Leopold's 1949 essay Thinking Like a Mountain, in which the author recounts shooting a wolf as a young man and comes to understand that the animal and its mountain are interrelated - the mountain suffers when its wolves are killed and the elk are left unchecked. "Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run," muses Leopold. "Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf."
Today, the gray wolf is now a calendar model on the walls of children's bedrooms and a star in the fundraising pitches of environmentalists. The wolf has become - along with the polar bear, the tiger and the whale - the symbol of longing for a return to the wilderness.
The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has already caused positive change in the local ecosystem, as willow and aspen trees are returning after years of absence. The presence of wolves also benefits scavengers, such as cougars and grizzly bears. In short, if anything, the benefits of the wolf to its ecosystem were underestimated.
On the other hand, despite the headlines, wolves are not hurting local livelihoods, as only about 2% of all livestock deaths are are negligible - even as conservation groups and state governments compensate local ranchers for livestock taken by wolves. Rumours of depleted elk herds are also exaggerated. The elk in both Idaho and Montana remain high. According to an Idaho fish and game official: "Wolves have had an impact on our herds in some parts of the state, but they've not been decimated as publicised."
And so the hunt goes on - but for how long? While Idaho and Montana hunt for wolves, the animal still remains on the endangered species list in Wyoming, and conservationists are continuing to press their case in court. They may have a good argument, judge Molloy hinted in his recent decision. "The [US fish and wildlife] service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line," wrote Molloy, "not the best available science. That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious."
The story of the gray wolf is far from over.