MacNeill Lyons/National Park Service/AP
A gray wolf in the wild. Park officials say hunting restrictions in place in parts of of Montana have protected Yellowstone's wolves from a repeat of a 2009 hunt in which four Yellowstone wolves were shot.
Gray wolves were taken off the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana last year and put under state control. But they're still on the list in neighboring Wyoming. That's because Wyoming has been the most aggressive about wanting to kill wolves.
- Circa 1500
Prior to colonial expansion, the gray wolf roamed most of the American West including prairies, forests, mountains and wetlands.
By the 1930s, the animal had mostly disappeared from the Northern Rockies because of hunting and loss of prey and habitat.
In the 1980s, a number of wolf packs started to travel down from Canada and began repopulating different parts of the region.
Today there are over 240 packs across the region. The wolf was delisted from the federal endangered species list (except in Wyoming) in May 2011.
Gray wolf ranges shown are approximate.
Wyoming has finally struck a deal with the federal government regarding how wolves will be treated once the state takes over. But environmentalists believe the agreement denies wolves an important refuge.
There weren't any wolves in Wyoming until the federal government reintroduced them in the 1990s. Now there are at least 329 in the state. But the state is eager to shrink the population because wolves kill livestock and game.
"My personal opinion is they need to be hunted wherever and whenever they occur, because wolves are extremely secretive creatures; they're extremely intelligent," says Joe Tilden, a county commissioner in Wyoming and the founder of a hunting advocacy group.
Under the new deal, wolves in the northwestern part of Wyoming could be managed as trophy animals unless they're in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
But conservationists worry hunting will be allowed on a stretch of national parkland that connects Yellowstone to Grand Teton. It's called the John D. Rockefeller Parkway.
"Wolves use that area extensively traveling through the two parks, and it's a very wild area," says Sharon Mader, who represents the National Parks Conservation Association. She says this corridor is essential for maintaining viable populations. "Unique and iconic wildlife, such as wolves, that are just coming off the endangered species list deserve the ultimate protection that national parks offer."
She says it's especially important for the parks to provide this sanctuary for wolves in Wyoming because they will be hunted on other federal lands there. If they wander out of the state's northwest corner, they will be considered predators and could be shot on sight.
The National Park Service is against hunting wolves on the Rockefeller Parkway, too.
"Visitors come to Yellowstone, they come to Tetons, they come to the parkway just to see wolves, so we want to manage the park so that people can enjoy wildlife viewing," says Herbert Frost, an associate director of the Park Service. He says his agency has the authority to ban wolf hunts on parkland, but he's not picking that fight with the state ... yet.
Gray Wolf Recovery
The number of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies has rebounded after near extinction in the 1930s. The wolves were protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and a concerted recovery program began in 1990.
"We haven't ceded anything. We're just working with the state so that we can work together, as opposed to working at odds with each other," he says.
Most national parks forbid hunting, but the legislation creating the Rockefeller Parkway allows for some hunting. Scott Talbott, who heads the Wyoming Game & Fish Department, says his agency manages hunts of other animals in the parkway, and it wants to keep its options open to hold wolf hunts there, too.
"As we move forward, it may be fairly important for the department to move forward with wolf hunting in the JDR [Parkway]," Talbott says.
For instance, if the population gets out of hand, hunters like Tilden may be needed.
"When you're hunting a predator, you're not only out to enjoy the sport, but you're out to control the number of predators," he says.
The wolf in Wyoming is expected to come off the endangered species list by early autumn. Conservationists hope there's a hunting ban in the Rockefeller Parkway by then.