Gray wolves (Canis lupus) have targets on their backs. One of the next barrages of gunfire will start soon in Minnesota, where more than 23,000 people have applied for the 6,000 permits that the state will issue for its fall hunting season, set to start November 3.

This is one of the latest salvos against wolves, which have slowly lost their protected status in the Rockies and Great Lakes regions over the past four and a half years after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) declared them "recovered"—a contention disputed by most conservation groups. These groups have filed their own salvo—of lawsuits—and as a result the wolves in these regions have regained and re-lost their protected status at least a half dozen times since March 2008. It's all admittedly quite confusing, but what it boils down to is that several hundred wolves have lost their lives while political forces worked to remove their protected status once and for all, which is pretty much where they stand today.

That brings us back to Minnesota, where hunters from 33 states have filed applications for the upcoming hunt. A spokesman for the state's Department of Nature Resources told the Associated Press that only a few hundred of the 23,477 requests were filed by Minnesotans. The licenses, to be issued by lottery on October 14, will cost $30 for Minnesota residents and $250 for out-of-state hunters.

Minnesota has set a limit of 400 wolves that can be killed this season. The state has an estimated wolf population of 3,000 animals, the highest number in the U.S. outside of Alaska, where the species has never been protected.

(The FWS has a list of state-by-state wolf population counts here.)

Minnesota's permit feeding frenzy comes about a week after FWS announced that gray wolves in Wyoming would also lose their endangered species protection. (The announcement came on a Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, when few were paying attention.) Wyoming has an estimated 350 wolves within its borders, all of which will be classified as "predatory animals," effective October 1. This designation means anyone can kill any wolf almost anywhere in the state at any time. A small amount of permitted hunting will also be allowed within the regions immediately surrounding national parks, but not the parks themselves, through the end of the year. Most of Wyoming's wolves live within those regions.

Wyoming's wolves will remain unprotected as long as the state maintains a population of at least 150 animals, including 15 breeding pairs. Neighboring Idaho and Montana, whose wolf populations lost their protected status a few months ago, must maintain the same counts to keep animals from going back on the endangered species list in their states.

But wait—as if on cue, here comes word of a lawsuit protesting the decision to remove Wyoming wolves from the endangered species. WildEarth Guardians and seven other conservation groups announced on September 10 that they plan to file a lawsuit against the FWS to reinstate the wolves' protected status. The notice of intent will be followed by an actual lawsuit in 30 days, after the start of Wyoming's hunt.

This story is far from over. Keeping track of all of the science and politics of wolf conservation would require a separate blog, so I won't cover the rapidly changing landscape with this species very often, but the Defenders of Wildlife blog runs a weekly wolf news wrap-up, which is a great source for all things related to this species. I'm sure they will have plenty of stories to run in October.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photo: Gray wolves courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—Midwest Region