GREY WOLVES, relentlessly hunted to extinction in the United States 70 years ago, have become so numerous following their reintroduction seven years ago that last week it was ruled that they can again be shot legally.
Since 31 of the animals were released into Yellowstone Park in Wyoming in 1995 under an environmental programme endorsed by President Clinton, their numbers have grown rapidly as they feasted on the ready supply of elk and other game in the region.
More than 700 are now believed to roam the Northern Rockies, spreading into Idaho and Montana, to the concern of ranchers who claim that the wolves not only feed on the local wildlife but have also been attacking sheep and cattle.
Since the reintroduction of the wolf, the federal authorities had banned their killing, even if they were seen attacking livestock. Farmers could apply for $650 (£400) compensation if they could prove that a wolf had killed one of their animals.
Environmentalists have also expressed concern that so many elks have been eaten that the size of the herds roaming the area have been significantly reduced.
Robert Fanning, the chairman of the Friends of the North Yellowstone Elk Herd, said he had witnessed the detrimental effect on the number of elk migrating every year to the winter range in Montana. "In the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee," he said, "a wolf will run through and kill a dozen elk calves. It's a slaughterfest."
In response to the rising number of complaints from farmers, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that within Wyoming, Idaho and Montana the status of grey wolves would be reduced from "endangered" to "threatened" and that federal protection of the animals would be ended in the spring.
have recovered. Our job is done," said Ed Bangs, the
co-ordinator of the service's wolf recovery programme.
Wolves, which once roamed throughout North America from Mexico to the Arctic Circle, were ordered to be hunted down and killed during colonial times to protect ranchers' stocks.
Deemed to have been eradicated, save for the odd animal crossing over from Canada, by the mid-1930s, Washington finally withdrew the reward it paid for every wolf pelt in 1950.
Wyoming has announced that a law from frontier days that classifies wolves as predators and allows them to be shot on sight will be reintroduced, except in two federal wilderness areas where hunting will be regulated.
Ranchers will be permitted to protect their livestock in all three states, but Idaho and Montana have yet to decide whether to allow hunters to shoot wolves for pleasure.
Federal statistics show that 80 sheep and 32 cattle were killed by wolves last year, but ranchers say that the real figures are far higher as many of their animals simply disappeared without the cause of death being known.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is to monitor the wellbeing of the wolf population in the western states before deciding whether a similar step should be taken in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the other areas where grey wolves now thrive.
Environmentalist groups complain that the decision to allow the animals to be hunted again has come too soon after their reintroduction and that the wolf population should be allowed to grow further and spread wider.