Long an endangered predator, the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf is once again the prey.
More than 550 gray wolves have been killed by hunters and trappers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming this season, the second period in which hunting has been allowed in order to manage the population. For over 30 years the animals were considered endangered.
Add in the number of wolves killed by federal Wildlife Service agents because they are a threat to livestock, as well as those killed by poachers, diseases, collisions with vehicles and other means, and it's not clear that these levels are sustainable, according to conservationists.
Sitting at the top of the food chain in many wild areas, wolves often conjure up frightful images in people's minds, primarily due to fairy tales going back to "Little Red Riding Hood," "Peter and the Wolf" and even horror-film depictions of werewolves.
But in reality, experts say, while wolves are known to sometimes attack livestock such as sheep and cattle, attacks on humans are extremely rare.
Still, wolves were hunted to the point where they were listed as endangered under federal law in 1974. After years of recovery efforts -- and countless lawsuits -- gray wolves were completely taken off the endangered species list in 2012 when Wyoming became the last of the Rocky Mountain states to manage its gray wolf population. Hunting started last season in Idaho and Montana, and in Wyoming in October 2012.
As the hunting season winds down, Montana reported that hunters have killed 225 wolves and Idaho 259. In Wyoming, which hosted its first gray wolf hunt this year, 42 wolves were killed in a controlled trophy hunting area near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in the northwest part of the state. Another 32 were killed in the rest of the state where gray wolves can legally be shot on sight, Eric Kezler of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told NBC News.
"Hunters were very cooperative with us in reporting the animals they killed and provide the samples we need to track genetics," Kezler said. "It went extremely well. Based on whatever else is happening in Wyoming, we're confident we can maintain a health population."
Meanwhile the federal government reported that 216 wolves were killed by federal Wildlife Service agents because they were attacking livestock, The Los Angeles Times reported.
According to the latest federal wolf counts “by every biological measure” the wolf population in the Northern Rockies region, excluding Wyoming, is fully recovered, according to federal experts. As of Dec. 31, 2011, the Rockies contained at least 1,774 wolves in at least 287 packs.
Derek Goldman, with the Endangered Species Coalition, points to gray wolves as an endangered animals success story, though he says his organization, based in Washington, D.C., is still awaiting word on the final population figures of wolf packs for this year.
“We recognize that hunting of wolves while we may not be enthusiastic about it that once a species is no long endangered that oftentimes hunting is going to be a reality,” Goldman told NBC News. “But we definitely want it managed by the best available science and not by politics.”
Marc Cooke of the Wolves of the Rockies conservation group, however, said some legislators in Montana want to make it open season on wolves. One bill, Senate Bill 200, would make it legal to kill a wolf on site on private property. "How is this managing wolves?" he asked.
“These animals can’t take this much more persecution,” Cooke told NBC News. “When you go and kill these wolves, a lot of times you’re killing the teachers, and when you kill the teachers of the pack you get the youngsters who haven’t absorbed the skills that would’ve been passed down over time to them from the elders in the pack. Now you have youngsters who don’t know how to kill things going after the easiest thing to kill, lambs and cattle, which leaves them open to being killed by in control hunts by the federal government.”