Battle Over Wolves

Without Endangered Species Act protection, gray wolves face an uncertain future.
Gray wolves, an ancestor of the domestic dog, were shot, poisoned and trapped by ranchers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to protect livestock. So many wolves were killed that by the 1930s, most of the animals were eliminated in the U.S. Killing the wolves was then made illegal in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act, and in the mid-1990s, gray wolves were relocated from Canada to the Rockies in an attempt to restore their population in the U.S.

Wildlife officials now estimate that there are 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.

“Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act,” announced Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “From a biological perspective, they have now recovered.”

But the wolf’s growing population comes with a great deal of criticism from western ranchers and hunters, who claim the recovered gray wolf is attacking their cattle and big game like elk, moose and deer. This past February, Montana governor Brian Schweitzer threatened to allow his state wildlife agents to kill wolves that pose any threat to livestock, despite it being illegal under federal law. “If there is a dang wolf in your corral attacking your pregnant cow (you should) shoot that wolf. And if its pals are in the corral, shoot them, too,” Schweitzer told reporters. Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter declared the state’s wolves a “disaster emergency”—akin to a flood or wildfire.

Just last week, the Obama Administration responded to western state lawmakers by announcing that they are lifting Endangered Species Act protections for 5,500 gray wolves in eight states in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes. Quickly taking action, Montana wildlife officials plan to hunt and kill 40% of that state’s wolf population this fall and Idaho will hunt and kill 30% of theirs.

National nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife (DOW) Northern Rockies representative Suzanne Stone believes Obama’s decision sets the tone for “wolf management based on unjustified hysteria rather than sound science.”

“We need our leaders to focus on resolving conflicts, not perpetuating them,” said Stone in a written statement. “The truth is we have about 700 wolves in Idaho right now. That’s almost 20% less than we had last year, so population growth appears to be leveling off. And not a single person has been injured by a wolf in Idaho since the species was restored 15 years ago.”

In actuality, wolves are one of the lowest causes of livestock losses. According to a 2006 report by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 0.11% of all cattle losses were due to wolf predation in 2005 while an average of 90% of livestock losses were due to non-predator causes like health problems and disease.

Though wolf predation is low statistically, any loss can be significant to a livestock owner. That’s why for over a decade DOW has been working with ranchers, biologists and federal wildlife officials across the west to resolve conflicts associated with the recovery of wolves. Their Defenders of Wildlife Proactive Carnivore Conservation Fund gave out $1.3 million from 1987-2009 to Northern Rockies ranchers for livestock losses. But with federal protection for wolves now gone, these payments have proven ineffective towards gaining a sustainable relationship between wolves and landowners.

“If you’re not addressing the underlying problems that cause depredations, it’s going back to this cycle of livestock losses and wolf loss,” said Stone.

That’s why DOW is now implementing their Defenders Wolf Coexistence Partnership program- to promote non-lethal wolf management practices and employ practical measures to minimize livestock-wolf conflicts. Such measures include having wolves wear radio collars provided by state Departments of Fish and Game, so ranchers and herders can carry telemetry devices to detect approaching wolves and move their livestock when necessary. Livestock and landowners are also encouraged to carry shotguns loaded with rubber bullets to scare off, rather than harm wolves as well as to set up temporary electrified fencing tied with red cloth strips and increase the number of guard dogs.

These simple deterrents are proving to be extremely effective. Last year, the DOW’s Big Wood River Valley Wolf Project resulted in the loss of only one out of 10,000 grazing sheep to wolves and no wolves were killed by agency managers.

Other organizations like The Blackfoot Challenge, a Montana-based conservation alliance of ranchers, environmentalists and government officials, seek to make up for the first white settlers who almost drove the wolf to extinction by utilizing electric fences and hiring ranch riders to keep wolves away rather than immediately killing them.

“We have had fairly rapid growth in the wolf population since they were re-introduced in the 1990s,” said Seth Wilson, the wildlife co-coordinator for the Blackfoot Challenge. “The big challenge is can we co-exist? That is the next big chapter that we are writing.”

As the gray wolf’s protections remain lifted, the question of whether protections could be removed for other endangered species that affect business remains open. “It certainly sets a precedent, but probably more disturbingly, it sends a signal that, as far as the Obama Administration is concerned, the Endangered Species Act is a bargaining chip,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.