istock-wolf New wolf numbers released this afternoon from US Fish and Wildlife: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming now host an estimated 1,020 wolves, a stunning 21 percent increase in just a single year. Since reintroduction in the mid-1990s, gray wolf numbers have grown at an astonishing pace, faster even than the most optimistic prognostications. Idaho continues to shelter more wolves than any other state in the West with about half the total. The rest are split almost evenly between Montana and Wyoming.

In recent months, nearly every day seems to bring new rumors of federal de-listing, an action that would leave gray wolves in a much more precarious position. Idaho officials, for example, have already stated their intent to kill wolves that are preying on elk.

The sheer absurdity of Idaho’s position is almost mind-boggling. Wolves are already killed for attacking livestock—but elk, on the other hand, are the wolves’ natural prey. In any case, credible biological studies actually show a negligible reduction in elk numbers that can be attributed to wolf predation. Until wolves become vegetarian, they’re not likely to have many friends in state government. In the meantime, their best chance lies in establishing a large and sustainable population that can weather squalls of bad policy.

Ironically, the best ally of the wolves at the moment may be anti-wolf forces in Wyoming. State officials there have so far refused to draw up a recovery plan for wolves that doesn’t allow unregulated killing outside of Yellowstone National Park (where, incidentally, the wolves draw millions of dollars in tourist revenue). Until Wyoming has a suitable recovery plan—as Idaho and Montana already do—the federal government will likely not de-list wolves. And with each year bringing double-digit population growth, gray wolves just need time to keep their numbers booming.

UPDATE 3/10/06:Article in today’s New York Times that details some of the issues around de-listing, including the desire of ranchers to have unregulated wolf killing, including aerial killing.