Gray wolves have been protected by the federal government since 1974. Their success since then has been phenomenal. But it's not surprising, according to Ed Bangs, who's been managing wolf recovery in the northern Rockies.
"They're just a tremendously adaptable animal," says Bangs. "In modern history, the two land mammals with the greatest distribution on earth are people and wolves. And that shows the advantage of living in a social group, and everybody taking care of everybody. So the threat to wolves was pretty much only people just killing too many, so it was only one issue that had to be resolved."
Since people have left wolves alone, they've been thriving. Minnesota now has about 3,000 wolves. When they were placed on the endangered list, the goal for recovery was less than half that number.
Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan each have about 500 wolves.
Now it'll be up to the states and tribal governments to manage those wolves. Each of those states has a plan approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency will be watching closely for five years.
And if the population declines dramatically, the Fish and Wildlife Service says they can put wolves back on the list.
Mike Don Carlos is the Minnesota DNR's point man on wolves. He says the state's plan is very similar to the federal system. The state will be able to kill problem wolves, depending on where they are.
"In Zone A, northeastern Minnesota, I would say the benefit of the doubt goes somewhat to the wolf when there are problems," says Don Carlos. "In the rest of the state the benefit of the doubt goes more to the landowners, and landowners can take more direct action in Zone B than they can in Zone A."
But none of the states is allowing a public hunting season to control the wolf population, at least not for five years.
In a way, the states have been practicing for their newly regained role as wolf managers during the period of federal protection. Now they'll have to handle the political pressures that could rise as states take over management.
Walter Medwid directs the International Wolf Center in Ely.
"How will the states respond to the differing voices?" he asks. "And again, the states have largely been out of the picture in terms of management, but obviously that changes. So state legislatures are going to be responsive to different constituency groups, who will have very different perspectives."
One of those perspectives is highlighted in a TV ad that's just been produced by a coalition of groups, including the Wisconsin Bear Hunter's Association. They call it the Little Red Riding Hood campaign.
The ad shows a wolf's eye view of approaching children at a playground as a narrator reminds viewers of the fable. It closes with the line, "The danger may be closer than you think."
The Wisconsin DNR's wolf expert, Adrian Wydeven, says the ad is unfortunate.
"It depicts wolves in a kind of sinister fashion, and it relies on old stereotype, misconceptions and fairy tales to scare people and distort information about wolves, and it's an unfortunate means to deal with wolf management," he says.
In addition to officially de-listing the wolf in the western Great Lakes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also announced it's proposing to de-list wolves in the northern Rockies.
But that could result in a court challenge from Defenders of Wildlife. The group's vice president, Jamie Rappaport Clark, says plans in Idaho and Wyoming won't protect the wolf.
"Both states have been very public about a desire to exterminate the vast majority of wolves that exist on the landscape today," she says. "It's not potentially removing a few problem wolves and managing a balance. It is extermination to the bare minimum."
Rappaport Clark says management plans in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan will do a good job of maintaining healthy wolf populations.
Those states will take over management of wolves 30 days after the de-listing is published in the Federal Register. That should happen within the next week.