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Open season: Will rebounding Wyoming wolves thrive without US protection?

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Reintroduction of wolves into the heart of American ranch country became one of the defining dramas of the 1990s, pitting agriculture-controlled state legislatures against environmentalists and federal scientists. More deeply, it pitted the symbolism of the wolf as a reminder of a lost wilderness against the pragmatic reality of the intelligent animal’s predation of domesticated animals.

Today, ethicists and conservationists balk at lifting federal protections, especially in Wyoming, where the state will test a new “dual status” designation. It means wolves in national parks, like Yellowstone, will be protected, while any animals that roam outside protected areas can be shot on sight as nuisance or as “trophy game,” with no bag limits imposed on hunters.

The latest wolf count in Wyoming showed a total of 328 wolves, 224 of which have set up ranges outside Yellowstone National Park.

But even as the wolf hunt is set to step up in America’s wildest reaches, it’s also true that ranchers, who firmly opposed federal wolf reintroduction as it gained steam in the 1980s and '90s, have slowly come to accept the wolf’s return as inevitable and permanent.

The trapping and shooting of wolves by humans, rancher associations say, is in itself an important conservation measure, forcing the animals to be wary of human populations and pushing them to stay in the wilder, unpopulated reaches of the mountains.

“The reality is my folks aren't in any big rush to get there to try to kill a wolf. They just want the ability to protect their livestock," Bryce Reece, president of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, tells The Associated Press. "We are hopeful, by putting some pressure on them, they'll move back into areas where it's less habited and there's less livestock."

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