During 2008, wildlife agents confirmed 569 cattle and sheep deaths from wolves throughout the West. That amounted to less than one percent of livestock deaths in the region, but the damage is never distributed equally. The same year 264 wolves were killed for attacking livestock in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. That's a big number, but it was taken from a wolf population now grown to around 1,600, roaming the region in more than 200 packs. Today there are two new packs in northeastern Washington and, some whisper, a small enclave in Colorado as well. The West is getting wilder by the hour.
Wildlife enthusiasts and tourists couldn't be happier. In Yellowstone alone, tens of thousands come to watch wolves each year, adding an estimated $35 million to the area's economy. Scientists are documenting ecological changes tied to this top predator's return that may hold the potential to repair out-of-balance wildlands, making them more stable and biologically diverse.
On the other hand, some folks say they no longer feel as safe taking their families into the woods. Sportsmen complain too—bitterly. To many out West, where interior decorating tends to involve antlers and come fall, "Howdy" is replaced by "Get your elk yet?" wolves are depicted as four-legged killing machines—land piranhas—ravaging game populations. Guys mutter about taking matters into their own hands and to hell with the Feds. Bumper stickers show a crossed-out wolf and the slogan "Smoke a Pack a Day."
In May 2009, the wildlife service declared the species recovered in the northern Rocky Mountains and handed over responsibility for them to Montana and Idaho. Both instantly labeled them game animals and set quotas for the first legal wolf hunts in either state's memory—75 in Montana, 220 in Idaho. "It's amazing—from a single, endangered pack to a huntable surplus across a whole region," says Jim Williams, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife program manager for northwest Montana. "This is the most striking Endangered Species Act success story I can think of." Maybe. In November 2009, Idaho extended its season to last until the quota is met, or until March 31, whichever is sooner. The change could open the door to hunters traveling by snowmobile and to the killing of pregnant females.
After an earlier federal decision to delist Western wolves in 2008, Wyoming essentially defined the animals as varmints, or pests, allowing virtually unlimited shooting and trapping year-round. A resulting lawsuit forced the wildlife service to temporarily put wolves back on the endangered list. (Since then, the service has refused to take them off in Wyoming until that state comes up with a different plan.) Meanwhile, a coalition of 14 environmental and animal protection organizations led by Earthjustice is suing the federal government to relist all wolves until the Western states develop a regional conservation strategy that includes core protected areas and buffer zones where wolves can live in normal packs that won't get shot to pieces.