HELENA, Mont. -- Once driven to near-extinction in the lower 48 states, the gray wolf is swarming over the Northern Rockies in numbers not seen in a century, and federal wildlife managers are about to declare victory in the $17 million effort to return the storied predator to part of its ancestral range.
Possibly as early as this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will reduce the level of federal protection that has allowed the wolves to rebuild stable populations in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Lone wolves have wandered from those states into Utah, Oregon and Washington, the advance scouts of their species.
But wolf recovery, while touted by most experts as an incredible success, has not been universally praised. Cheering, even from conservationists and wolf advocates, is muted. Ranchers and some others are gritting their teeth and hoping for the best.
Publication of a pending rule in the Federal Register will downgrade the wolf's classification under the Endangered Species Act from ''endangered,'' the highest level of protection, to ''threatened.'' It was proposed in 2000.
''It's in the Department of the Interior, going through final review in Washington, D.C., so all they have to do is initial it,'' said Ed Bangs, who heads the recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ''We expect that it will be published at the end of February.''
While the animals would still be protected, the reclassification would, among other things, allow ranchers to kill wolves caught attacking their livestock.
''Right now in northwest Montana, if a guy walks out his back door and sees a wolf attacking his calf, he can't do anything about it,'' Bangs said. ''Under 'threatened,' he can shoot and kill the wolf on the spot. He just has to report to us within 24 hours.''
The reclassification also will launch the next phase of the agency's recovery program: Delisting, or removing all federal protection, and letting the states manage the species like other wild animals. Bangs estimates delisting will come sometime in 2004.
The federal agency, however, would continue monitoring the wolf populations closely for at least five years after delisting, and could step in any time if the numbers drop below sustainable levels.
The downlisting comes at a poignant stage in the wolf recovery program: the death of old No. 2.
The 8-year-old male was the last of the original 14 Canadian gray wolves that were shanghaied to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 to begin re-establishing the species there. His own pack drove him out. Old and alone, another pack killed him. Park officials found his body on New Year's Eve.
But his descendants live on; he is believed to have sired eight litters of pups.
When he and 13 other wolves bolted from cages into Yellowstone's snow on Jan. 15, 1995, Yellowstone had been without wolves for decades. Now there are 148. They live there under complete federal protection as an ''experimental, nonessential population.''
The Yellowstone wolves will remain ''experimental'' until the species is delisted, but they will be safe as long as they remain inside the park. When they roam outside they will be subject to the laws of whatever state they enter.
The downlisting will apply to all or portions of nine Western states -- Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and parts of Arizona and New Mexico. But only Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, with the big wolf populations, must have management plans, Bangs said.
Simply in terms of numbers, the federal wolf recovery program has been a howling success. As of New Year's Eve, the end of the annual head count, nearly 700 wolves in about 41 packs were roaming Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, Bangs said.
''That's the third year we had achieved our recovery goal, which is 30 or more breeding pairs for three successive years,'' he said. ''Wolves are biologically recovered in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, and we are making the transition to state management.''
The transition to complete state control hinges on all three states' having formal wolf management plans that meet FWS approval. Idaho adopted its plan last March. Montana and Wyoming are developing theirs.
Cattle and sheep producers, the most ardent opponents of reintroduction, have mostly resigned themselves to making the best of the situation, but resentment runs deep.
''My perspective on the whole issue is ... they're here and we've got to focus on a way to manage them in a way that works for the people of Wyoming,'' said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
Defenders of Wildlife has been compensating ranchers for confirmed wolf kills, but ranchers say many kills can't be confirmed, and there are other, hidden costs that can't even be measured, let alone compensated.
The group has paid about a quarter of a million dollars since 1987, almost $50,000 last year alone, but has not decided whether to continue when the wolves are reclassified.
Ranchers are not alone in their concerns. Some conservation groups say delisting is premature or ill-advised for other reasons. Hunters and outfitters say wolves are already taking a heavy toll on deer, elk and other big game.
Bangs is certain the move to delist the wolves will be met with lawsuits.
Who will sue?
''Everybody,'' Bangs said.
Environmentalists are likely to sue to maintain federal protections for wolves, while ranchers and livestock groups will likely sue to make sure their livestock -- and livelihood -- are protected from the wolves.
Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation ''certainly wouldn't be surprised.''
''The success of the wolf recovery program should lead to more successes in other parts of the country, (but) the Fish and Wildlife Service seems intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,'' France said.
''The rule they tell us they are going to release -- instead of building on successes and moving a positive agenda forward in places like Montana, Wyoming and Idaho that would be broadly supported -- will instead create controversy and litigation.''
Greg Schildwachter, policy adviser in the Idaho governor's Office of Species Conservation, said the wolf recovery program shows that the Endangered Species Act needs to be revised and modernized. The law focuses on listing animals and barely mentions getting them off the list, he said.
''Although the wolves have done their thing biologically, we are having a helluva time doing our thing bureaucratically,'' Schildwachter said. ''They have so far exceeded our expectations of population that it's a glaring failure of the ESA that (wolves are) not delisted already.''
Bangs estimates the process to delist the wolf will take a year.
''My guess is we'll have 100,000 comments to look through. Just the public interest in wolves makes it more expensive and drags out the time frame. In this instance haste makes waste.''
Some 3,500 wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin are also in line to be delisted, possibly before the Northwestern wolves. Those states have already adopted management plans, and the wolf already has been downgraded to ''threatened'' status in Minnesota.
The only other federal wolf recovery plan is Arizona and New Mexico, where a smaller variety of gray wolf called the Mexican became extinct in the wild. The 40 or 50 wolves in that program will remain classified as endangered, Bangs said.
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