Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Saturday, 12 September 2009 11:47 UK

Grey wolves: hunters or the hunted?

By Vincent Dowd
BBC News, Montana

Grey Wolf

Two US states are reintroducing the hunting of wolves after they were taken off America's list of endangered species.

The wolf season has already begun in Idaho and is due to start next week in Montana.

Critics say the wolf has not yet recovered sufficiently from virtual extinction in the last century.

Carolyn Sime, from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, acknowledges she cannot be certain how this autumn's wolf-hunting season will go.

But, she says, that is because there has never been a wolf-season before.

Once there were tens of thousands of grey wolves roaming the Northern Rockies which extend through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

But unregulated hunting and trapping meant that by the 1930s they were all but extinct.

The US Endangered Species Act of 1973 gave the wolf protected status and gradually the population recovered.

Grey wolves are the largest wild members of the dog family
Grey wolves once had the largest range of any land mammal, other than people
The dingo and the domestic dog are both subspecies of the grey wolf

At first animals crossed over from Canada but others were reintroduced deliberately.

There are now some 500 wolves in Montana - the fourth-largest state in the US and one with a human population of under a million.

Population recovery

Earlier this year the wolf came off the federal "at risk" list.

Now individual states can develop their own wolf policies.

Montana is to allow hunters to kill a maximum of 75 animals, while Idaho, where hunting has already begun, says up to 220 can be killed.

Ms Sime knows some feel killing wolves at all is premature.

"But our data would suggest that harvesting 75 wolves would still result in a stable or even an increasing population," she says.

"Even after harvest we could still be in the neighbourhood of 600 or 650."

She says there is no set figure for how many wolves there should ultimately be in the state.

If 500 wolves can fit into Montana without generating too much conflict with livestock producers we'll have them
Carolyn Sime
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

"It's a chapter yet to be written. We're going to manage them and conserve them in keeping and in balance with their habitat.

"If 500 wolves can fit into Montana without generating too much conflict with livestock producers we'll have them".

But many of the state's ranchers are certain re-population was ill-advised in the first place.

At 53, Martin Davis has worked land near Livingston for most of his life.

The ranch's main business is rearing calves.

"It's tough," he says, "because it means just one pay-day a year. You have to be a real good budgeter".

To make ends meet he also works as an "outfitter" or guide for hunters and tourists.

"This summer we haven't seen so many wolves. But other years every time we checked on the cows we'd see wolves and we'd try to run them away from our calves.

"Things were easier in what we call the 'BW years' - 'Before Wolves'. You'd only check on cattle up in the mountains every two weeks if you got busy with haying. Now you have to do it more often."

Delicate balance

But in a huge and sparsely populated state are a few hundred wolves really such a headache?

Martin Davis
When wolves are spreading as fast as they are we've got to curb that population
Martin Davis, rancher

"Wolves were here before none of us were. But doggone it, we're here now. We're trying to feed this nation with beef and sheep. When wolves are spreading as fast as they are we've got to curb that population".

The law firm Earthjustice has been working to try to overturn the decision to allow wolf-hunting in Montana.

"Rather than coming at it from a standpoint of how many wolves people will accept, the right question is how many wolves we need to have a recovered population that's self-sustaining," says lawyer Doug Honnold.

Mr Honnold says across the entire Northern Rockies that would take 2,000 to 5,000 wolves - compared to some 1,650 today.

In a ruling on Tuesday, a federal judge turned down a request by environmental groups to stop the hunts in Montana, although the legal wrangling over whether wolves should be placed back on the endangered species list is set to continue.

There are complex arguments against the shooting - such as that it will discourage wolves from interbreeding with other packs which will harm genetic diversity.

But many of those opposed to culling Montana's wolves use a simpler argument.

The wolves, they say, were in the Northern Rockies long before humankind.

Having only narrowly avoided killing them off it is now up to us to find a way to co-exist as peacefully as possible.

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