The gray wolf is no longer an endangered species in several U.S. states, thanks to decades of federal protection in the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes. But amid escalating efforts to curb its comeback — namely via public hunting and trapping — many conservationists say the iconic predators aren't out of the woods yet.

One major battleground in America's wolf wars lately is Montana, where state officials last week loosened an array of restrictions on wolf hunting. Passed by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission in a 4-0 vote, the new rules allow trapping for the first time since gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list last year. They also extend the length of the hunting season, and remove a statewide limit on how many wolves can legally be killed per year.

This is welcome news to many ranchers and hunters in Montana, who often suggest wolves pose an existential threat to livestock and wild elk populations. And with biologists reporting at least 650 wolves in the state this year, up from 500 in 2009, advocates of looser hunting laws have found ample support from local politicians.

"We need to make sure we keep the wolf population in balance so they're not attacking more elk, more deer, more antelope," Gov. Brian Schweitzer told Billings' KTVQ Thursday, "but we're going to maintain a healthy wolf population in Montana as well."

Not everyone agrees that Montana's wolves are a problem, though, or that more hunting and trapping is a good strategy for ecological balance. Montana had a population of 2.5 million cattle and sheep in 2011, notes ecologist George Wuerthner in a recent blog post on Wildlife News, yet wolves killed fewer than 100 of those animals last year. The MFWPC's decision, he writes, "will likely lead to greater conflicts between humans and wolves because [it] ignores the social ecology of predators."

Image: U.S. National Park Service

Gray wolves inhabited most of North America 200 years ago, but they were virtually wiped out of the Lower 48 states in the 19th and early 20th centuries by government-sponsored eradication campaigns, which portrayed them as deadly pests. Only later did scientists realize their importance as a "keystone predator" — an animal that helps regulate the food web by, for instance, keeping grazer populations in check so they don't eat too many tree seedlings and hinder forest growth.

U.S. wolves were added to the endangered species list in 1974, and wildlife officials later reintroduced small numbers to the Northern Rockies in the 1990s. After a slow start, the species is now self-sustaining in several states, including Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Meanwhile, another rebound has unfolded in the western Great Lakes, where Canadian wolves have repopulated parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

As wolves return to their former hunting grounds, however, they've found a changed landscape — one populated not just with familiar prey like deer and elk, but also with millions of chickens, cows and sheep. This has predictably renewed their ancient rivalry with humans, ultimately leading to their removal from the endangered species list and the return of legal wolf hunting. And while those hunts have so far been limited to the West, Wisconsin will also hold a wolf season this fall, in which 25 percent of its wolves may be legally killed. Minnesota is similarly mulling a plan that would let 13 percent of its wolves be hunted or trapped per year.

Wolf attacks on livestock are relatively rare, but they can still be costly for ranchers. Wisconsin has about 800 wild wolves, for example, which have been blamed for 64 incidents of livestock harrassment, property damage or other problems so far in 2012. (There were 182 such incidents reported in 2011, but not all were confirmed.) To reduce tension, Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources issues payments to people whose livestock are attacked — it has paid more than $214,000 so far in 2012, up from $155,000 in all of 2011 and $203,000 in 2010.

HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF: Wolves stare down an elk in Yellowstone National Park. (Photo: NPS)

Another rationale for allowing wolf hunts is to reduce competition for game animals like elk, whose populations are also smaller than they were 200 years ago. But according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, while "elk will probably never return to their historic numbers nor to all of their historic range, far more elk inhabit the United States than at any other time in the last 100 years."

Experts generally agree that wolves are now stable in much of the U.S., and many say they exceed the numbers needed for a healthy population. There is substantial local support for wolf hunting in states that have wolves, but there's also a firm opposition that sees public hunting and trapping as archaic ways to manage wildlife.

"In 2012, it's just mind-boggling to me that we're still talking about trapping. It's such an inhumane and torturous method," Pam Guschausky of Great Falls, Mont., told the MFWPC during Thursday's public meeting, according to Reuters. And beyond ethical issues, Wuerthner argues that unfettered hunting and trapping could make wolf-human relations even worse than they already are.

"Hunting predators tends to skew populations toward younger animals," he writes in Wildlife News. "Younger animals are inexperienced hunters and thus are more likely to attack livestock. ... In addition, just as occurs with coyotes, under heavy persecution, wolves respond by producing more pups. More pups means greater mouths to feed, and a need to kill even more game — thus hunting and trapping may actually lead to greater predator kill of game animals like elk and deer."

Montana hunters killed 166 wolves last year, well below the quota of 220, a disparity supporters cite as a reason to soften state laws. Yet conservationists point to the 20th century as evidence that loose hunting laws can push wolves to the brink of extinction, and animal-rights advocates add that tactics like trapping are cruel. "It's barbaric and it's uncalled for," Kim Bean of Helena, Mont., said at Thursday's meeting, according to the Helena Independent-Record. "You need to stop this trapping. It's not fair chase."

As MFWPC chairman Bob Ream said Thursday, such battles over wolves will likely continue long into the future. Rather than trying to end them, he hopes to simply contain them to sustainable levels — much like what Montana wildlife officials aim to do with wolves themselves. "This is a tough issue," Ream said, noting that the MFWPC received more than 7,000 public comments about wolf-hunting rules. "It's become so polarized. My hope for the future is that we can get to the point where we treat this large predator like we do any large predator, like mountain lions."

MNN tease photo of wolf: Shutterstock

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Wolf politics raise hackles in U.S. West
America's wolf wars are heating up, as Montana loosens its hunting rules and other states push for their first legal wolf hunts in almost 40 years.