Wolves settle into new home too well for their own good

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The Independent Online
A programme to reintroduce grey wolves into two areas of the northern Rocky Mountains, including Yellowstone National Park, could be reversed - because it has been too successful. A United States federal court judge ruled that the three-year old programme was unlawful and ordered that the wolves - now estimated to number more than 150 - should be removed

The decision was welcomed by ranchers in the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, who had strongly objected to the reintroduction of the wolves; the case had been brought on their behalf by the American Farm Bureau Federation. It was condemned, however, by government biologists and environmentalists who had campaigned to re-establish all the mammals that had lived in Yellowstone when it was declared the first US national park in 1872.

The judge's ruling, which is subject to appeal, is the latest round in a continuing trial of strength between ranchers and conservationists in the northern Rockies. Half a century ago, the US government sided with the ranchers and ordered the extermination of the wolves, which were accused of attacking the ranchers' livestock. Three years ago, the Clinton administration heeded conservationists and the wolves were reintroduced from Canada. They have thrived and become a tourist attraction.

Environmental groups were divided on the merits of the programme, however. The majority supported the wolves' return, but some, including the Audubon Society, objected that - in a compromise offered to the ranchers - they were not granted the special protection accorded to endangered species.

The judge based his decision on a technicality deriving from the fact that there were already some wolves in the region, recent migrants from Canada, when the reintroduction programme began. The programme provided for the new group's status as an experimental population to be extended to the other group, which had formerly been considered an endangered species. It was this reduction of their protection that, in the judge's view, invalidated the programme.

The ruling is subject to appeal, and until then the wolves remain. But one solution - that the government tries to extend endangered species protection to the new wolves - would be as keenly contested as the reintroduction programme itself. At present, ranchers may shoot wolves that worry their livestock outside the park. If the wolves were designated an endangered species, that would be illegal.