Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, said the state aims to keep around 400 gray wolves on the landscape to minimize conflict with ranchers and hunters, who have complained when wolves attacked either livestock or deer and elk.
Montana's wolf population actually rose 15 percent after last year's hunting season, to a total of at least 650, prompting the state to allow unlimited hunting of wolves between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28. It also has allowed trapping for the first time.
"Despite the hype, we didn't go out and wipe them out at the first opportunity," said McDonald, adding that wildlife managers are seeking "a balance" in which wolves exist but don't threaten cattle or big-game populations.
Scientists say that wolves play a key role in the ecosystem. Aspen trees in Yellowstone National Park suffered in the decades when wolves were absent, and began to thrive when wolves came back and kept leaf-eating elk in check. Since wolves were reintroduced there in the mid-90s, browsing on the tallest aspens researchers surveyed declined by more than 75 percent, according to Oregon State University ecologist William Ripple. This produced other ripple effects, including cooler streams shaded by trees and more vibrant beaver and bison populations that had more plants to eat.
"Rather than just maintaining enough wolves to keep them from going extinct, what researchers and managers should consider is how many wolves would it take for them to be effective at influencing the ecosystem," Ripple said. "What does it take to keep the prey populations in check, in order to maintain healthy plant communities?"
But it is unclear how much tolerance some local residents have for wolves, especially in the northern Rockies and the Southwest. Wolves have made gains in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin without sparking much controversy. There are more than 4,000 in those states, with an estimated 2,921 in Minnesota alone.