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On March 28, 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the 13-year-old reintroduction of gray wolves to the Northern Rockies had been a success. "Recovery goals" for numbers of wolf packs and breeding pairs had been met and exceeded: The 66 original transplants from Canada had spawned more than 1,500 U.S.-born descendants. With great fanfare, the feds removed the wolf from the federal endangered species list and handed over its management to the three states where the wolves now denned, howled and hunted: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Each state produced a plan intended to protect the wolf while allowing for "management" of human-wolf conflicts. Montana's approach, which seemed to satisfy most people in the state, allowed citizens to kill wolves that ate livestock and also instituted a modest hunting season. Idaho, which has more wolves than the other two states, announced a similar plan with a somewhat different attitude: The confrontational governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter, vowed to bid on the first wolf tag. Wyoming's approach –– the most controversial –– defined wolves as "trophy" animals that could be hunted by permit where they were most populous, in the northwestern part of the state. In the rest of the state, however, they were now considered "predators" and could be shot on sight for any reason whatsoever.
A few days after delisting, hunters legally shot three wolves in Sublette County, part of Wyoming's "predator zone." Over the next weeks, ranchers, hunters and state wildlife agents dispatched dozens more. All told, more than 100 wolves were killed in the months following the delisting.
Conservationists were suddenly afraid that wolf-haters with "Smoke a Pack a Day" bumper stickers pasted on their Ford F-250s might undo the most successful carnivore reintroduction in history. They sued to reverse the delisting, arguing that the state plans would wipe out any wolves that left prescribed zones in Yellowstone, central Idaho and Glacier National Park in Montana. If that happened, the suit argued, each state's wolf population would be cut off from the others, endangering the wolves' long-term genetic viability.
On July 18, 2008, a federal judge ruled that the delisting had been premature, and agreed that the genetic viability argument likely had merit. He ordered the wolf's return to endangered species status until the court could review the entire case. Then, on Sept. 22, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would back away from its delisting proposal until the states' plans were reconsidered. With the judge's decision and subsequent federal action, Canis lupus became, once again, a federally protected species in the Northern Rockies.
Which might not be the best thing in the long run. The recent whipsaw of federal, state, judicial and federal control of wolves has damaged the delicate alliances that greens, ranchers and Teddy Roosevelt Republicans forged during the last decade or so. After finding common ground in battling the impacts of the energy boom, greens are again finding themselves vilified by anti-wolf Westerners — constituencies they need to prevail in the still largely conservative West. It may be a case of winning the lawsuit and prolonging the war.
Even some environmentalists winced at the lawsuit that returned the wolves to federal control, predicting that even semi-peaceful coexistence with wolves in a state like Wyoming "is never going to happen unless they're Wyoming's wolves, and not ‘the-feds-shoved-them-down-our-throats wolves,' " says Stephanie Kessler, Wyoming representative for The Wilderness Society.
You could have seen this happening from more than a decade away.