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The federal government is claiming another victory for the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday said the gray wolf in the northern Rocky Mountains has recovered to the point that it can be taken off the endangered species list. Ranchers and hunters applaud this decision, though environmentalists say the government is lifting federal protections too soon.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Denver.
JEFF BRADY: Wolves were eradicated from this part of the country in the 1930s, after decades of hunting, trapping and poisoning. In 1995, a few dozen gray wolves were brought down from Canada and released into Yellowstone National Park. Nearly 13 years later, wolves have spread across three states - Montana, Wyoming and Idaho - and now there are about 1,500 of them.
Jim Magagna is a rancher near Rock Springs, Wyoming, and he's experienced the downside of wolf reintroduction.
Mr. JIM MAGAGNA (Rancher, Wyoming): In 2005, 2006 wolves attacked some smaller bunches of sheep that I had in some pastures on a total of four occasions and I lost a total of 71 head of ewes and lambs.
BRADY: Magagna also heads the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. And while he'd rather there were no wolves at all, he is pleased with the federal government's decision to take them off the endangered species list. That allows states to set wolf hunting seasons to keep the animal's numbers down and hopefully reduce wolf conflicts with ranchers.
Hunters like that, too, because they believe wolves are killing too many elk and deer. Anna Seidman is an attorney with Safari Club International.
Ms. ANNA SEIDMAN (Attorney, Safari Club International): Our members are finding it more difficult to hunt. They're finding themselves in competition with wolves for prey. And so it is having a dramatic impact on our member's abilities to enjoy their recreational opportunities.
BRADY: But wolves have provided new recreational opportunities for some people who like to watch them. Thousands travel to Yellowstone National Park each year hoping to spy a pack of wolves through binoculars.
Ed Banks with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say there'll be plenty of wolves left to watch, even though the federal government won't have as much oversight of the recovery.
Mr. ED BANKS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): We're going to monitor things very closely for the first five years. The states have written commitments of how they're going to manage wolves into the future to maintain viable, healthy wolf populations.
BRADY: Banks says states already have experience managing all kinds of wildlife, so he thinks they'll do a good job with wolves.
Mr. BANKS: You just have to think about how successful mountain lion management has been, black bears, deer, elk, these animals that are very numerous. And the states are really well-prepared and better prepared than the service to manage these recovered animal populations.
BRADY: It's true that all those animals have flourished despite hunting. But Suzanne Stone, with Defenders of Wildlife, says under the current wolf plan states could trim the population down to as low as 300 animals for all three states. Stone says it also raises concerns about inbreeding and whether that's a population that can sustain itself. She says all those other animals are not managed in the same way.
Ms. SUZANNE STONE (Defenders of Wildlife): If you look just in the state of Idaho, we have 3,000 mountain lions, we have 20,000 black bears, and more than 100,000 elk. So if they were saying that they were going to manage wolves at levels that are like other wildlife, I think everyone would be far more comfortable with that.
BRADY: A coalition of wolf advocates like Stone now say they'll sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the delisting process.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.
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