CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Visitors to Yellowstone National Park on almost any given day can glimpse packs of wolves and hear their iconic howls, thanks to a yearslong effort to revive the species that once neared extinction in the United States.
It's an effort the federal government has determined to be so successful that wolves no longer need special protections to ensure their survival in Wyoming -- the state officials chose in the mid-1990s for reintroducing the predator to the Northern Rocky Mountains.
"The wolf population in Wyoming is recovered, and it is appropriate that the responsibility for wolf management be returned to the state," Gov. Matt Mead said Friday after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will end the protections in most of Wyoming and entrust the state with managing their numbers.
The move allows wolves to be shot on sight in most parts of Wyoming while keeping them permanently protected in designated areas like Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, and the Wind River Indian Reservation. The decision quickly sparked promises of legal challenges from environmental groups that argue wolves still need protection to maintain their successful recovery.
"Today's removal of wolves in Wyoming from the endangered species list is a tragic ending to what has otherwise been one of America's greatest wildlife conservation success stories," Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. "Now we are left with no choice but to pursue legal action to ensure that a healthy, sustainable wolf population remains in Wyoming and across the Northern Rockies for many generations to come."
In announcing the decision, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe acknowledged the opposition it would face and the "emotional reaction to wolf hunting," but said hunting would not be "detrimental to long-term conservation of wolves."
"Quite the contrary, it will support long-term conservation of wolves as it has other predators like mountain lion and grizzly bear and black bear," Ashe said.
North America was once home to as many as 2 million gray wolves, but by the 1930s, fur traders, bounty hunters and government agents had poisoned, trapped and shot them to near extinction in the continental United States. An effort to revive their numbers rose up and centered on starting the recovery in Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming.
Overcoming protests from Wyoming farmers and ranchers who feared wolves would prey on their livestock, wildlife managers transplanted 14 wolves from Canada into Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. The effort exceeded all expectations as wolf numbers quickly multiplied, and Friday's action means Wyoming can now take measures to control their population outside the Greater Yellowstone vicinity.
There are about 270 wolves in Wyoming outside Yellowstone. There are about another 1,100 or so in Montana and Idaho where wolves were delisted earlier and still more in Washington and Oregon.
Wyoming has been chaffing under federal wolf protections for years, with ranchers and hunters complaining that wolves kill too many cattle and other wildlife.
Wyoming's management plan was agreed upon last year by Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. It calls for the state to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and at least 100 individual animals.
The state will classify wolves in the remaining 90 percent of Wyoming as predators, subject to being killed anytime by anyone.
The state will take over management of the wolves under its purview effective Sept. 30. The Wyoming Game Commission has approved wolf hunts starting Oct. 1. The state is prepared to issue unlimited hunting licenses but will call a halt after hunters kill 52 wolves.
Bryce Reece, executive vice president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, said ranchers for too long had their hands tied in trying to stop wolves attacking their livestock.
"The reality is my folks aren't in any big rush to get there to try to kill a wolf. They just want the ability to protect their livestock," Reece said. "We are hopeful, by putting some pressure on them, they'll move back into areas where it's less habited and there's less livestock."