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"I know that asking for more wolves on the land is controversial," says Leahy. "They are a polarizing animal. But what we'd really like to see is for them to be managed as native wildlife, and we don't manage any other native wildlife down to the edge of extinction every year."
The lawsuit is pending.
Biologists who study wolves on the ground seem to have a more nuanced view. State game officials shut down the hunt on the northern border of Yellowstone on Oct. 26, just as hunters exceeded by one the area's quota of 12 animals. For Doug Smith, the park's chief wolf biologist, the loss of the collared alphas and four out of 10 members of the Cottonwood Pack was a tremendous blow.
"It put a big hole in our research," Smith says.
He'd like to see Montana's wolf hunt "tweaked," given how quickly the quota was filled from near the park boundaries. Many other biologists agree.
"You basically fill up your quota with wolves in the backcountry, and then no one can hunt the wolves that you really might want to remove, out on private lands, the ones that may be involved in livestock conflicts," Smith says.
Hunters, too, complained that quotas were filled too early, preventing them from hunting wolves during the general big-game season in some places. Montana plans to hold another wolf hunt next year, and some of the suggested "tweaks" might be applied. Ken McDonald, a wildlife division administrator for the state, told a reporter, "Again, keep in mind that this was only Montana's first year of wolf hunting. It's still a learning experience for everyone involved."
No one knows how the hunt will affect the survivors' behavior and prospects.
"You shoot four out of 10 in a pack, what will they do? Nobody knows," says Smith. "We know that disperser wolves (those that pioneer new territory and start new packs) usually come from large, stable packs, and dispersers are the ones that provide genetic connectivity and eventually keep the animals off the endangered species list. The Cottonwood Pack probably won't be pumping out any dispersers. They are going to stay home, regroup somehow."
But even after the loss of 527 and Dark Female, and faced with the task of capturing and re-collaring new wolves in the Cottonwood Pack, Smith still supports the way Montana wildlife managers structured the first wolf season.
"I thought they did a good job with it," he says. "It was very controlled. I respectfully disagree with those people who feel that the long-term survival of the wolf is enhanced by protecting them from hunting."
For Carolyn Sime, the questions posed by wolf restoration have been as much about human values and perception as they have been about the wolves themselves.
"We have hunters, who have been the greatest advocates for restoring basic stuff like deer and elk, but then it comes to wolves, and they want to get rid of them," she says. "We have the animal rights people, some of whom seem to feel that no wolves should die—ever. Or that if a wolf had killed 527, it would have been okay, but a man with a gun? Unacceptable. I'm hoping that eventually, those who occupy the two extremes will discredit themselves."
She cautions that the anti-wolf-hunting groups may unintentionally prove to be the roadblock to restoring the wolf, or even any other endangered species, to more states in the West.
"If they want to set the bar so high—more wolves on the landscape than the people who live there can stand, then no other state will take on what Montana has taken on. Never. Why would they?"
This article originally appeared in High Country News. Hal Herring is a contributing editor at Field and Stream magazine and has written for HCN since 1997. He lives with his family in Augusta.