Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife (see Conversations, this issue), got it right when he called the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park “the greatest wildlife restoration effort in our nation's history.” So why is a federal judge ordering that the wolves be removed?
E's cover story this issue is about predators and their return from near-extinction to stable populations in several, mostly western states. The Yellowstone wolf reintroduction, which brought 66 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho in 1995 and 1996, serves as a model for other predator programs simply because it has been so successful. The wolf packs have established themselves spectacularly, with an estimated 90 wolves in Yellowstone now, and at least 73 in Idaho. A chance to see wolves back in their native habitat has fueled a $43 million annual increase in Yellowstone tourism, and a wave of popular support from local residents.
Reintroducing predators certainly has risks. Melanie Lambert, program director of The Summerlee Foundation, for example, worries that bringing back wolves hurts mountain lions which, she says “are already stressed and having a hard time.”
U.S. District Judge William Downes' ruling last December—which he immediately stayed pending appeal—was based on the wolves' designation as an “experimental, nonessential population.” Such “nonessential” wolves can be shot by ranchers if they attack livestock, and Downes ruled that this leaves any native wolf populations, protected by the full force of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), illegally vulnerable. That prospect so bothered the National Audubon Society and Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund that they filed suit to bring the wolves under ESA protection.
Unfortunately, the environmental groups' nuanced attack was merged with the outright legal opposition grouped under the Farm Bureau Federation banner, which came from property rights activists with no interest in wolves at all. The Mountain States Legal Foundation, for instance, represents wealthy ranchers who graze their cattle herds on federal land. The Denver-based group was set up in 1977 as part of the so-called “Sagebrush Rebellion” by Reagan-era Interior Secretary James Watt and beer magnate Joseph Coors.
Predator reintroductions work. While there has been natural wolf migration into Yellowstone, it is far too scattered and isolated to naturally repopulate the park. The Yellowstone program restores the natural balance of an ecosystem that had been seriously disrupted by the wolves' eradication in the 1920s. Similar programs, which already have tremendous popular support, could bring wolves back to New York's Adirondacks, restore grizzly bears to the 15-million-acre Greater Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem in Montana and Idaho, and save the critically endangered lynx from eradication in its extensive western range.
For their part, National Audubon and Earth Justice, which support the overall introduction program, are “outraged” at Judge Downes' decision, and plan their own appeal. “Conservationists on all sides want the same thing,” says Doug Honnold of Earth Justice, “to save the wolves.”
Also in this issue, E continues its coverage in the International Year of the Ocean with a close look at our embattled coasts, under fire from runaway development, pollution and the effects of global warming.