BILLINGS – Tens of thousands of gray wolves would be returned to the woods of New England, the mountains of California, the wide open Great Plains and the desert West under a scientific petition filed Tuesday with the federal government.
The animals were poisoned and trapped to near-extermination in the United States last century, but have since clawed their way back to some of the most remote wilderness in the lower 48 states.
Biologists with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, however, said those isolated pockets of wolves are not enough.
“If the gray wolf is listed as endangered, it should be recovered in all significant portions of its range, not just fragments,” said Michael Robinson, one of the petition’s authors. He said the animals occupy just 5 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states.
About 6,000 wolves live in the U.S. outside Alaska, with most of those in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies, with only a few dozen in Arizona and New Mexico. They are listed as endangered except in Alaska, Idaho and Montana.
Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has pushed to end federal protections for wolves and return control over the animals to the states.
But both administrations have been rebuffed in the courts. Federal judges have ruled repeatedly that the government failed to prove existing wolf numbers will ensure the population’s long-term survival.
Last year, the Interior Department relented to pressure from environmentalists in the Great Lakes. The agency agreed to put wolves back on the endangered list at least temporarily — just months after they had been removed for the second time in recent years.
Wolves are notorious predators with a hunger for livestock, and experts say they could survive in most of the country if they were allowed.
Young adult wolves sometimes travel hundreds of miles when looking to establish a new territory. In the last several years, packs have gained a toehold in parts of Oregon and Washington. Others have been spotted in Colorado, Utah and northern New England.
But with wolves, more than just biology is at play. Politics serves the deciding role in where wolves are allowed, said David Mech, a wolf expert and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“In the areas where they are not acceptable, they will be killed out — illegally if nothing else, Mech said.
The Northern Rockies population has stirred the most rancor, largely because of sheep and cattle killings and wolves preying on big game populations that swelled when the predators were absent.
Idaho and Montana initiated public wolf hunts last year, and both intend to increase their quotas on the animals this fall. The states want to put a dent in the animal’s population growth rate, which has been as high as 30 percent annually.
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