A New War Against Wolves

Triumphant wolf reintroduction turns tragic as wolf hunting resumes.

Posted Jul 08, 2012

Once hailed as a triumph for the Endangered Species Act, the return of gray wolves to the lower 48 states has begun to resemble a tragic farce featuring politicians, wildlife officials, hunters, outfitters, guides, and ranchers intent on reprising the campaign of extermination from a century ago when wolves were slaughtered until there were no more to kill.

Among the most recent acts in this rapidly devolving drama: Under cover of fire and rain that were then dominating the news, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission on July 2, 2012, approved year ‘round hunting and trapping of wolves. The Idaho commission’s move came just days after Wisconsin approved final plans for hunting wolves beginning this November, with Wyoming soon to follow.

Montana and Minnesota had plans in place, and Oregon and Washington were beginning to deal with wolves who have settled within their boundaries. 

Of the states with established wolf populations only Michigan seems to recognize that it can manage without hunting.

The wolves themselves are on the move with solo travellers reported from California, Colorado, and the Dakotas.

According to their foes, like the Republican candidate for governor of Montana, Rick Hill, his state’s 700 to 800 gray wolves are dangeroous predators who should be shot the moment they get too close to humans or their activities.  In some anti-wolf circles, his views are mild.

Wherever wolves appear, no matter their numbers, they are accused of almost all predation on livestock.  More than a few observers have noted that gray wolves are the only predator for whose predation on their livestock ranchers receive compensation.  In Wisconsin, if ranchers can certify that a wolf has taken one animal, they can attribute all lost livestock to wolf predation and receive compensation.

Yet even using figures that are skewed against them, wolves are responsible for less than 1 percent of total livestock losses in the northern Rocky Mountains. All predators account for 5.5 percent of livestock lost to all causes.

For many fearful people, the gray wolf is an embodiment of evil out to take their livestock, the animals they hunt, their lives.  Wolves are said routinely to stalk and attack humans, including armed hunters, although North American wolves have been implicated in just two human deaths in the past fifty years, neither in the lower 48 states.  Wolves are also blamed for killing hounds that have entered their territory, including some that are trained to hunt wolves. Experts have told me that wolves will follow human hunters, hoping to track down injured game or to gulp down viscera left at a kill site.

By the late 1960s, gray wolves were extirpated from the lower 48 states except for far northern Minnesota and Isle Royale in Lake Superior.  They became the iconic symbols of the burgeoning environmental movement, the most charismatic of the terrestrial megafauna.  Not least because they were wild siblings of dogs, we seemed to know them in a way we did not know other wildlife. 

Gray wolves were brought under protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1974.  From their last redoubt in the lower 48 and from Canada, they began to recolonize their former territory. The US Fish and Wildlife Service provided a significant boost in the mid 1995 and 1996 with its injection of Canadian wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the Frank Church Wilderness in central Idaho. 

The reintroduction succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. By 2010, there were an estimated 1770 wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains wolf recovery area, defined here as Montana, Idaho, Yellowstone National Park and environs in Wyoming, and parts of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and northern Utah. Another 4,000 or so were estimated in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. 

Despite widespread public support, wolves had implacable enemies among ranchers, hunters, outfitters, guides and their politicians in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming from their first appearance.   The growing wolf populations triggered demands that they be 'delisted' — removed from the list of endangered and threatened species and the federal protection that goes with it. Management of the wolves would be turned over to the states, which could then approve hunting.  

The US Fish and Wildlife Service was moving fitfully in that direction in the northern Rockies until last Spring when Congress intervened, adding a rider mandating delisting and prohibiting judicial review of their action.  The Obama Administration did not fight it, and environmental groups who did challenge in court, lost. 

The rider represented the triumph of partisan politics over science and common sense, reported The New York Times and Greenwire on April 13, 2011, because it excluded science from a crucial decision regarding an endangered species — whether it had recovered sufficiently to survive without massive government intervention or protection from people who substitute belief for fact.

State officials in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho claimed that the number of wolves in their states already exceeded initial targets set by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Idaho officials announced their intentions to roll back the wolf populations in their state to 150 total, including 15 breeding pairs.  Those figures represent the bare minimum scientists estimate is needed to sustain a genetically viable population, they said.  They would also require killing on the order of 80 percent of the wolves in the northern Rockies.

In commenting on Wyoming’s wolf management plan the American Society of Mammalogists disagreed with the states’ claims that they had too many wolves.  In a letter to the US Fish and Wildlife Service from May 15, 2012, the society’s president, Michael A. Mares said that its original estimates were low and that more on the order of 3,000 wolves would be needed in the northern Rocky Mountains, if the population were to have a restorative effect on the ecosystems and continue to expand into Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and beyond.

Mares wrote:It is biologically indefensible for the agency overseeing the ESA to put this recently restored species at significantly elevated risk of decline in the core recovery area and to prevent this recovering species from colonizing large areas of suitable habitat where it remains extirpated.  And it is irresponsible to the taxpayers—who have spent $43 million on wolf restoration since 1974 (USFWS 2011)—and a betrayal of the broader public trust to now increase the risk of that recovery being unsustainable.  Once again, USFWS in this proposed rule is serving the narrow interests of key constituencies in the wolf recovery zone rather than the broader societal interests that are both the spirit and the letter of the ESA.  And at what cost?  Since 2003 in Wyoming, 1 wolf was killed for depredating livestock for every 1.3 cattle and 1.1 sheep lost to depredation (Jimenez 2012).

Wolves are maligned by some hunters for killing on average annually twenty elk each, thereby causing a drop in overall elk numbers and making it harder for them to make a kill.  In short, a big, wild “dog” with teeth is a more successful hunter than a human with a scoped, high-powered rifle!

That bit of absurdity aside, strong evidence suggests that elk herds become healthier in the presence of wolves, who prey on the old and infirm, the young and weak.  More profoundly wolves, as apex predators, affect the entire ecosystem through what ecologists call a “trophic cascade,” what might be seen as a chain of effects, as each animal and plant community responds to changed conditions. 

In the Great Lakes region, the Ojibwe objected to renewed hunting of an animal they hold sacred, but like other opponents in other states, they were ignored. But polls and interviews indicate that people did not support wolf recovery in order to see wolves in traps or killed — managed like other ‘game’ species, especially on public lands.  In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources recently conducted an on-line poll in which 80 percent of respondents were opposed to hunting and trapping wolves. 

A 2010 poll sponsored by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources found that 80 percent of respondents valued wolves, and a similar number favored the use of best science to develop plans for managing them.  Only about 14 percent favored hunting wolves. 

Much of the argument over wolves revolves around their physical place in the world.  Do they belong only in wildlands?  Can people and wolves live together?  But those are the wrong questions.  People and wolves have lived together for tens of thousands of years and people have prosecuted wolves for nearly as long if they were seen to transgress against them.   The question then becomes: How can we learn to accommodate ourselves to others—people and animals.