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Mar 212008

By Barbara Kessler

The story of the Rocky Mountain gray wolves is an inspiring fairy tale, in reverse, that showcases nature’s ability to sustain its own given a little time, the right habitat and a helping hand from conservation groups.

wolf_2.jpgThe tale begins like this. Once there was a wild and foreboding territory called the American West. The land stretched far and the big bad (some would say awesome and beautiful) wolves were plentiful, numbering in the tens of thousands. But the pioneering spirit was turning the wild landscape into ranches and towns, railroads and highways. The buffalo and the elk were in retreat. And then, it was the wolves’ turn. Deprived of their natural prey, they turned to sheep and cattle and confronted a fierce foe, an enemy with guns. Caught in the crosshairs by ranchers, bounty hunters and trappers, the wolves were driven to the brink of extinction in the U.S. Rockies, though thousands of their cousins thrived in Canada.

And that would have been the end of the story, with nary a U.S. gray wolf surviving the mid-20th Century. But some people considered their loss a tragedy. And today, thanks to a $25-plus million recovery effort begun in the early 1990s by conservationists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, some 1,500 gray wolves roam a region that covers much of Idaho and sections of Wyoming and Montana.

The rebound of the wolves has been nothing less than stunning – a testament to the resilience of this top predator. But the reaction to it has been fractured and disparate, making for an epic Western battle over the Rocky Mountain gray wolves’ place in the United States, and more specifically, whether they should continue to be listed as an endangered species or “delisted” from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The debate raises many questions — about who should control our remaining wilderness and how hard should we humans should try to save habitat and species in decline – echoing similar dilemmas around the world, affecting the Pandas, the African Elephants, the Polar Bear, all similarly encroached upon by human activities.

The debate over the wolves, about how many constitute a “sustainable” number and how long they should enjoy federal protection has been underway for several years. As the wolf packs grew, they produced an impressive upward bar graph, giving hope for their continued survival to the government and non-government groups watching. The Bush Administration saw a victory and took the final step toward de-listing the wolves in February. But a coalition of 11 environmental groups called a time out. They filed a notice to try to stop the de-listing, arguing that the wolves’ are not sufficiently recovered to ensure their survival and that history could repeat itself.

“Wolves in the northern Rockies are simply not ready to lose federal protection,’’ said Suzanne Stone, a Boise-based wolf expert with Defenders of Wildlife in a joint statement issued by the groups. “America has come too far, and worked too hard, to throw away the successes of the past decade and see wolves in the Yellowstone region end up back where they started.”

“Gray wolves in the northern Rockies are near biological recovery, but they aren’t there yet,’’ explained Jenny Harbine of Earthjustice in the statement. “Now, wolves are staring down the barrel at hostile state management schemes that would ensure the wolf population never achieves sustainable numbers and genetic connectivity.”

But while the environmentalists view the wolves’ recovery as a work-in-progress and predict a potentially devastating 60 percent loss in the wolves’ population, many on the opposing side of the discussion consider the recovery of the gray wolves to be an over-achievement with serious consequences for human inhabitants, particularly local ranchers.

They see a restive predator whose population has reached a tipping point and rather than needing to grow, could stand some culling.