BILLINGS, Mont. — Record numbers of endangered gray wolves were shot this year by government wildlife agents and ranchers in the Northern Rockies, as the predator's attacks on livestock met with an increasingly aggressive response.
In a case that underscores the brutal efficiency of those government wolf control efforts, wildlife agents recently killed all 27 members of a wolf pack near Kalispell, Mont. Their removal followed repeated attacks on livestock within the pack's territory.
The Bush administration is poised to remove the region's estimated 1,500 wolves from the endangered species list as soon as this week. Environmentalists — who successfully fought to reverse a prior removal of endangered protections — are gearing up to again challenge the government in federal court.
But as jockeying over the animal's legal status continues, an Associated Press review shows more wolves killed in 2008 than at any time since they were reintroduced to the region more than a decade ago.
"In the course of conserving wolves, some will die," said Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Sime said removing problem wolves is necessary for the animals to coexist with the region's rural residents.
"It's not a national park. We live here," she said.
Through early December, 245 wolves were legally killed by wildlife agents and ranchers — a 31 percent spike over last year's figure, according to state and federal records.
That included 102 wolves in Montana, 101 in Idaho and 42 in Wyoming. Another nine wolves were shot in a specially designated "predator zone" in Wyoming that has since been struck down by a federal judge.
Environmentalists contend that's too much pressure for a species that's been on the endangered list since 1974.
"I realize there are times on private land where wolves have to be taken out, but I think this goes way beyond that now," said Jerry Black, a wildlife activist from Missoula, Mont. "They're not being managed. They're being killed."
The 27 wolves from Montana's "Hog Heaven" pack had killed at least five cows, five llamas and a bull over the course of several months. Wildlife agents initially killed eight of the wolves in hopes of curbing the pack's behavior, but decided to take out the remaining 19 wolves in early December after the attacks continued.
The pack is one of seven eliminated in Montana this year. Wildlife managers in Idaho and Wyoming have taken similar steps with packs that demonstrated a taste for livestock. Trapping and relocating problem-causing wolves has not been done for several years because the best habitat is already occupied by wolves, game managers said.
Removing wolves from the endangered list would open the door to public hunting. Supporters, including some sporting and conservation groups, say that would allow hunters to help keep the population of the predators in check.
Wolves were completely wiped out across the American West in the early 1900s. After settlers moved into the region and livestock operations began to flourish, the government sponsored poisoning and bounty programs to stem the economic losses caused by wolf attacks.
The animal rebounded quickly in the Northern Rockies after 66 wolves were shipped in from Canada in 1995 and 1996. Since then, their population has grown by about 25 percent a year.
In recent years, as the most remote wilderness areas became saturated with the predators, new packs have pushed ever closer to human settlements. And when wolves den up near cattle or sheep ranches, wildlife biologists say, it is only a matter of time before the predators cross the line.
Through early December, at least 204 cows, 307 sheep and 21 llamas, dogs and horses were killed by wolves in the region, for a total of 532 animals. That's up from 420 killed in 2007.
Federal officials and ranchers say those figures represent only a fraction of the number actually killed, since many livestock kills occur in the backcountry where they cannot be confirmed as being killed by wolves.
"I don't have anything against the wolf. He's just an animal doing what he does," said Albert Sommers, a rancher from Wyoming's Upper Green River Valley. "But we've seen our calf loss rate go from 2 percent a year to 7 percent. Granted, that's from both grizzly bears and wolves, but it's not a figure that's economically sustainable."
Only Wyoming has experienced a decline in wolf and livestock deaths this year. Federal wolf biologist Mike Jimenez said the drop followed a determined effort over the last two years to remove entire packs at the first sign of trouble.
"If you kill two here, two there, by the end of the season you would remove the bulk of the pack, but you also lost all this livestock, so you lost the public tolerance for wolves," he said. "I'm not sure I was helping wolves by letting them kill livestock over and over."