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The Wolf Wars

A spokesperson for one of the anti-hunting groups was quoted in a Wyoming newspaper predicting that if Western states were allowed to manage the species, "They’re going to be skinning wolves alive!"

by Daniel D. Lamoreux This story was first published as the cover story in the January 2009 issue of FUR-FISH-GAME magazine.

Wolf hunts scheduled this fall by Idaho, Montana and Wyoming had to be cancelled when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granted a preliminary injunction returning the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population to the Federal Endangered Species List.
The ruling effectively ended the hunts and also took management authority back from the states and returned it to the federal government for the foreseeable future.

The Northern Rockies gray wolf population was delisted last spring after several years of exceeding population recovery goals set by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. But a coalition of 10 local and national anti-hunting groups sued to force the return of full federal protection for the wolves. A spokesperson for one of the anti-hunting groups was quoted in a Wyoming newspaper predicting that if Western states were allowed to manage the species, “They’re going to be skinning wolves alive!”

While the debate over wolf management in the West often includes such heated rhetoric, the legal basis for the judge’s decision to return the wolves to the Endangered Species list appeared to be simply that the state plans did not guarantee enough genetic mixing between the three distinct wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountain region.

The judge acknowledged that the Idaho and Montana plans, including the hunts, would not have threatened wolf populations. But Wyoming’s plan, which did not provide protection for wolves across a large portion of the state, was more problematic, at least in terms of public perception.
Back under full protection of the endangered species act, the wolves will continue to expand in numbers and range. Experts had long predicted that wolves from the expanding Idaho population would cross the Snake River into Oregon, and within a week of the court decision to return the wolves to the endangered species list, the first evidence of a wolf pack in Oregon since the mid-1940s was confirmed by state biologists. The exact number of wolves in the Oregon pack was not ascertained, but at least two adults and two pups were heard howling.

What has been dubbed “The Wolf Wars” is being waged on many levels in the West. However, one fact remains: The wolf is an alpha predator with no real natural enemies, and human hunting or other lethal controls eventually will be needed to control wolf numbers, to restrict their range and address the impacts of their predation on livestock and other wildlife. The only real question is whether sport hunters will be tapped or whether we will continue to pay animal damage control specialists to do the shooting.
April 2, just four days after the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population was removed from the Endangered Species List, local headlines in Jackson, Wyoming, reported that three wolves preying on livestock already had been dispatched under the revised state guidelines.

Wolves were abundant in 1805 when the Lewis and Clark expedition rolled through Montana. They were so numerous, in fact that at times elk and other game animals taken for food had to be guarded to prevent wolves raiding the meat. But other than being a nuisance, the wolves were simply considered wild animals in a landscape teeming with wildlife.

However, by the late 1860s, the wolves were being seen in a much different light. Ranching had become a prominent part of settlement out West, and with the bison in decline, beef and mutton had become “what’s for dinner” as the wolves shifted their predation from vanishing wildlife to flourishing livestock.
The wolf pelts also brought a fair amount of coin to the “wolfers” who made the bulk of their living protecting calves and lambs. When state, county and federal governments started subsidizing the bounties ranchers already paid, it was, for the wolf, all over except for the crying. By roughly 1930, the wolf had been all but eradicated from the western scene.

When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, a virtually nonexistent northern Rocky Mountain wolf subspecies (as then classified) was listed as endangered, and environmentalists called for its “restoration.” Over the course of the next two decades, there would be much research and planning, many public meetings, the formation of a Congressional committee, a draft Environmental Impact Statement, a final EIS, two separate interagency teams, a variety of hearings and so on, all looking at the potential for bringing the gray wolf back to the region.
Finally, in 1995, the reintroduction effort began. Wolves were live-trapped in Canada and first transplanted into what was designated the Greater Yellowstone Area. The Canadian wolves wasted no time claiming their new territory, and they did so under the curious and watchful eye of a national audience.

In less than 10 years, wolf populations in and around Yellowstone National Park had grown to the point that wildlife managers considered them maxed out.

The wolf-carrying capacity of the land had been reached, and conflicts would only increase. By January 2004, the northern Yellowstone elk herd had been reduced to its lowest level in 30 years. Similar concerns are now being expressed throughout the western wolf’s expanding range.

“In the Lolo, we have extensive information, and it suggests that elk are changing their behavior because of wolf predations,” said Brad Compton, big game coordinator for Idaho Fish and Game.
“Our best data indicates that wolves are… creating a situation where we have low recruitment.”

Of course, everyone knew going in that wolves would prey on game animals, but perhaps not to the degree that has occurred. Studies conducted by researchers from Montana State University found, for example, that bull elk in the Gallatin Canyon of the Yellowstone area were six times more likely than females to be killed by wolves. The assertion that wolves take only the sick and the old has proven to be less than accurate.

This concerns the region’s many hunters, outfitters and guides. Sportsmen, however, carry surprisingly little weight in Western political circles, certainly when compared to other interest groups.
Ranchers and farmers, on the other hand, carry a very large stick, and their livestock predation concerns, to some degree, have been addressed by Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was tasked with managing problem wolves from the beginning of the reintroduction program.
In fact, wolf control has kept the Service very busy. In January 2004, a Service control agent shot and killed a pack of seven wolves deemed responsible for killing cattle in southwestern Montana. In March of that same year, two additional packs were exterminated for killing livestock. At the completion of this action, a federal official was quoted in newspapers saying, “There are basically not any wolves left in the Madison Range.”
In July of 2004, federal authorities eliminated a pack of nine wolves in Idaho that were responsible for killing approximately 100 sheep, 70 of the sheep having been slaughtered in a single night.

It is estimated that USDA Wildlife Services will kill at least 200 wolves this year. Yet this rarely makes national news. The management costs passed on to taxpayers are considerable, too.
“The state spends about $1.1 million to $1.2 million for wolf management that is actually received from Congressional appropriations,” Compton said of his state, Idaho. “We anticipate the costs under state management would be similar.”

When wolf reintroduction was first being considered, biologist Ed Bangs was at the table helping to determine what would be a reasonable approach. In the mid 1990s, when the “on the ground” portion of wolf reintroduction began, Bangs was the Wolf Recovery Coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife and has been at the helm throughout the project. With wolf management returned to the federal government, he remains there today.

Bangs is refreshingly blunt about the current situation. “We spend way too much money on wolves,” he said, “and we monitor their activities more than is rational. People drive the controversy and the cost up. It is a complete waste.”

The question of when the wolves should have been taken off the Endangered Species list was explicitly addressed in the original Federal Register filing.

A revised recovery plan, approved by the Service in 1987, identified a recovered wolf population as being at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves for three consecutive years in each of the three recovery areas (northwestern Montana, central Idaho, and the Yellowstone area).

This criteria for delisting was more than met six years ago. A population of this size would total approximately 300 wolves, and as of this writing, the estimated population of wolves in the region is more than 1,500.

The delisting process was delayed due to several factors, including elements of the Wyoming state wolf management plan. But the Service finally accepted a revised Wyoming plan in 2007, and delisting took place in March of this year.

However, as already noted, the elimination of a couple of wolves was all it took for the anti-hunting groups to file what proved to be a successful federal lawsuit returning the wolves to full federal protection and management.

The crux of the public objection to the Wyoming plan is that the state wants to manage wolves as predators throughout much of the state, allowing them to be removed at any time. Carefully regulated sport hunting would manage wolf numbers in the rest of the state, where conflict with livestock has been deemed less problematic. The Idaho and Montana plans also call for carefully regulated sport hunting as key wolf management tools.
Beyond canceling this year’s hunts, Compton was not sure how the judge’s ruling might play out.

“We all supported the delisting and didn’t anticipate this,” he said.
Almost everyone involved with actual wolf management agrees that returning the wolves to full ESA protection is unnecessary, though perhaps not surprising.

“When Wyoming created the predator area, they basically gave the middle finger, a symbolic middle finger, to the feds,” Bangs explained. “Under the injunction, the judge gave the finger back.”
Bangs said he believes the injunction is based on two false premises. The first is a lack of natural connectivity, which refers to the ability of the separate wolf populations to crossbreed so that genetic isolation can be avoided and population health maintained in the long term. The judge ruled that the Service plan said this intermingling had to occur naturally.

“That was incorrect,” Bangs said. “Connectivity is not necessarily natural. We could drive them back and forth in a truck,” In fact, the concept of using periodic wolf transplants to maintain diversity in the gene pool always has been considered a viable option.
“The second was the Wyoming plan,” Bangs continued. “Biologically and scientifically, it was clearly good enough. But political rhetoric fueled mistrust.”

Bangs said that delaying the start of the state hunting programs for a year, while legal issues are worked out, should not make much difference. Down the road, however, the need for wolf hunting, whether by sportsmen or paid agents, may only increase.

“Our best guess is that we’ll have 1,700-1,800 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming at the end of the year, and we’ll be killing about 250 wolves in agency control actions,” Bangs said. “That’s higher than most years, but more wolves translate to more necessity for control.

“The situation would be a lot like pouring water on a table,” Bangs said. “The table will hold some water but, as you continue to pour, the water starts running off the edges. Wolves are like that, insofar as they limit their own density. As an area reaches its population capacity, some of the wolves run off on private lands, BLM, Forest, et cetera, and they can cause a lot of problems.”
In Bangs’ estimation, sport hunting is a most appropriate and cost-effective way to address these problems.

“By using hunting as a control method, we are most likely to take the wolves that are the boldest, that are in the areas of most roads and least appropriate habitat, he said. “A really good way to control wolves is to use the people who buy licenses and participate in a hunt.”

So far, the government has spent about $27 million doing it without the help of sportsmen.

Compton also believes that sport hunting should have a role in wolf management,

“The reason we have been able to bring back the wolf is because we restored pronghorn, elk, turkey, et cetera, and we did so because of hunting,” Compton said.

“The North American hunting model is the most successful conservation model in the world. Sportsmen have provided the funding for wildlife agencies across the U.S., and without hunters, we would have fewer conservation officers, refuges, wildlife monitoring, research programs, and on and on and on.”
Bangs agreed. “We couldn’t even think about bringing back large predators if it weren’t for sportsmen who have brought back elk, deer and antelope,” he said.

“Sportsmen deserve a big hand for getting us this far. They’ve paid for our conservation programs and wildlife management. But now, hunters are a smaller part of the population, and wildlife is becoming important to everybody, and they all want to have a say.”

To make sure wolf populations would not be threatened, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming were all planning very conservative sport hunts. “We were planning a very limited quota season with a maximum harvest for that season of 25 wolves,” said Eric Keszler, assistant chief of the Information and Education Division for Wyoming Game and Fish.

The season would have ended on the closing date or when the harvest quota was reached, whichever first occurred. That’s basically the same way the state has long managed its other large predators, the black bear and cougar.

Even though Wyoming wolves outside of the geographic boundaries of the state’s Trophy Area could be taken at any time, any threat to the wolf population would be minimal because so few wolves actually live outside of the Trophy Area, where hunting would be strictly controlled through the quota system.
“We estimate that about 10 percent of Wyoming’s wolf population exists outside the trophy management area,” Keszler said. “Right now, we have about 350 wolves total, so we estimate there may be 35 or so wolves outside the trophy area.”

But while the plan itself may have been biologically sound, the political perception proved to be poison.

“The symbolism and emotion associated with wolves are what makes management ten times more expensive and difficult than it needs to be,” Bangs said.

“Biologically, it is clear-cut and simple to do, but each side in the debate tries to anger the other. The ranchers say they want to kill all the wolves, and the environmentalists say they want wolves everywhere. They use the wolves as a club to beat each other.”
Bangs concluded that, biologically, at least, wolf reintroduction in the West is already a done deal. “In 2003, we should have delisted them, but people keep this thing boiling.”

Politics notwithstanding, the professional wildlife managers pretty much concur that it is only a matter of time before sportsmen will be called on to hunt the Western gray wolf. There is simply no good reason not to do so.

“We’ll still kill 250 wolves this year,” Bangs concluded. “The only difference will be not hunt this fall.”
In the broader picture, sportsmen should take home a lesson from this story. If we expect the North American hunting model to survive – the most successful conservation model in the world – we cannot sit on our laurels. We spend a great deal of time and money enjoying our sport. We need to spend every bit as much of both protecting it, as well.