Rodger Shlickeisen

Defending America's Wilder Ways

Dr. Rodger Schlickeisen, at the helm of the 50-year-old Defenders of Wildlife since 1991, has by now grown accustomed to controversy in his work defending some of America's biggest predators—including grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions.

Rodger Schlickeisen

In 1995 and 1996, Defenders scored a triumph by negotiating legal entanglements and vociferous local opposition, and aiding government agents in reintroducing gray wolves into the Northern Rockies. But last December, Defenders' efforts were set back when U.S. District Judge William Downes ruled that the reintroduction was illegal because the “experimental” population was not adequately protected. He then ordered the removal of all 90 wolves from the park and another 73 evicted from the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho. Defenders immediately announced an appeal, and it's highly unlikely that the now very popular wolf plan will actually be overturned.

Originally setting out with 1,500 members to end steel-jawed leghold traps and the poisoning of coyotes, Defenders can now boast of having over 230,000 members (it has doubled its membership in the last three years), with enthusiastic predator proponents in every corner of the U.S.

Schlickeisen, a former chief of staff to U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), has recently steered the group's efforts towards building public support for the wolf's return to Washington State, New York and the Southwest. At present, he's concentrating on getting Downes' decision reversed, and building citizen, rancher and timber industry acceptance for the return of the grizzly bear into the economically challenged Bitterroot ecosystem in Idaho.

E: Did the decision to take wolves back out of Yellowstone surprise you?

Schlickeisen: It was a disastrous ruling. It depended on the judge reaching an interpretation, not only of the law, but of congressional intent on the way they worded the provision. I can't even imagine how he got to that point. The remedy he proposes is preposterous. This has been the most successful endangered species reintroduction in the history of the country—and the most popular. And the idea that after nearly three years, agents would remove over 150 wolves, is nothing short of bizarre.

And it would be costly—an incredible waste. The judge doesn't disagree. But he came to the conclusion that one aspect of the law was illegal. We don't agree with him. We're now asking him to reconsider. If he doesn't, we'll be appealing the case. The 10th Circuit, where the case resides, is not friendly to conservation causes. It's not impossible that if this keeps going, it could wind up in the Supreme Court. But there is no way we or the public are going to permit those wolves to be taken out of there. The public loves them.

People seem to really emotionally respond to predators like wolves, big cats and bears. Do you think it's because we psychologically need these animals in our lives?

Yes, I think that's true. Edward O. Wilson, the eminent evolutionary biologist at Harvard, has pointed out that through all but the last minor portion of our existence, we've been so intimately connected to nature that we retain in us an innate need for it. In an increasingly urbanized society, it becomes more and more difficult to satisfy this need. It also has to do with the fact that some of these species, especially the wolf, our signature species, is, more than any other single creature in North America, a symbol of wild nature.

Schlickeisen is concentrating on protecting the Yellowstone wolves and building acceptance for the return of the grizzly to Idaho.

But even that's not all of it, because in the case of the wolf, what we know and what we're ashamed of is the fact that since our country's founding, the wolf has been demonized, and a conscious government-sponsored effort was made to exterminate the wolf across the land. Approaches they used were fairly ghastly—like denning, where they would pull wolf pups out of their dens and bludgeon them ruthlessly, or lasso them and tear them apart. Cowboys would do this too—besides shooting them and trapping them and poisoning them and setting them on fire. There's quite a bit to be ashamed about. Especially once you get the facts about what wolves are really like, and what their contributions are to ecology. So, there's some satisfaction the public gains from making amends.

The biggest predator issue right now, besides the Yellowstone wolves, is the proposed reintroduction of grizzlies into Idaho's Bitterroot ecosystem. The recovery plan Defenders supports says that bears would be categorized as “experimental, non-essential,” just as the Yellowstone wolves were. Why is this so controversial?

It's a long story. It's basically to help calm the public and assure them that this is an experiment, and if something goes wrong, it's not something people have to live with forever.

I don't disagree with the heartfelt sentiments of people that prefer to see the grizzly reintroduced into the Bitterroot simply as an endangered species, without the “experimental” designation. The fact of the matter is that there's too much controversy surrounding this species. Grizzly bears are more dangerous than wolves. Anybody that tells you that's not true is misleading you. We'll be lucky to get the bears in even with this designation. It's not going to happen otherwise.

Some people have expressed fears of land-use restrictions as grizzlies are reintroduced into Idaho. Do you think that's a logical concern?

No, I don't. We're talking about introducing them onto federal public lands. I can't see that there are any major restrictions that aren't already on the books.

But there's no guarantee that the bears will stay on these federal lands?

No, there's not. Except that grizzlies have not wandered that far in the past in Glacier National Park [in Montana]. And keep in mind that this area in Idaho is larger than the state of Rhode Island. And if they do come out, there's management in place. There are a lot of management options possible if you have a problem animal—like relocation.

Will it be easier to win approval in the Bitterroot because Defenders has gone through this process before? What have you learned from such negotiations with conservationists, ranchers and government agents?

It took something like 15 to 18 years to get to the point of actually reintroducing wolves to the Rockies. But in just a couple of years, we have an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) already drafted for the grizzlies' return. Whether the reintroduction of a controversial species can succeed or not, depends on local attitudes. Ranchers, in the case of the wolf, had legitimate concerns, which we met by creating the wolf compensation fund to compensate them for livestock losses. The ranchers have been grateful that there's a group that's willing to put their money where their mouth is. That went a long way to solving problems, not only with the ranchers themselves, but with the general public, because everyone viewed it as

something very fair.

Photo: Martin Sonnenberg / Defenders of Wildlife

That's one of the great success stories about all of this. Defenders has said all along that the biggest threat to wolf recovery would be illegal killing, and illegal killing is what results if the public isn't engaged. Our wolf compensation program helped make the public supportive of the wolf's return, and has reduced significantly the amount of illegal killing going on.

In the case of the grizzly, people are reacting in fear. They don't want this creature thrust on them by the federal government without the local people having any say. That's why we've tried to work it out with some people who have typically been opponents.

How important is it that a lot of senators and representatives in the West back the right-wing property rights group known as “Wise-Use”?

We had opposition to the wolf, all the way up to the point where they were being driven down from Canada to be released. There were threats that [Wise-Users] would call out the local and state militia and block the borders. It went all the way to the bitter end, and that's nothing new. It's the nature of the political system in the northern Rockies that elected officials and campaigns there still reflect, more than they should, the kind of historic “man over nature” and “defeat all the creatures” attitude. It's the influence of the resource extraction industries.

There's a minority of the population that tends to have undue influence on the attitudes of some, but not all, elected officials of that area. But we're talking about federal public lands and a federal Endangered Species Act, and an interest by all Americans in restoring nature and protecting it as best as we can in this country.

In the case of the wolf returning to Olympic National Park in Washington State, there's concern that mountain lions could be forced out of their native territory, into close proximity to human populations. Would that pose an increased risk to children, pets or people?

No, that's speculation. The population of mountain lions there is very small and they have a great ability to avoid wolves. The lions will have to change their habits because they'll have wolves in their territories, but we don't think there's [increased danger to humans]. There have not been any incidences that I'm aware of where wolves and mountain lions in the same place have caused a problem.

When could the wolf reintroduction process effectively be declared over?

You stop when you have wolves back in every place that's feasible or practical to have them. Unfortunately, there aren't that many places left. Certainly the Olympic National Park and Adirondack Park in New York are two, and we think that reintroductions are probably the only thing that will get them back there. Natural re-colonization across the border from Canada won't do it.

What about jaguars naturally coming back into the Southwest?

There have been some sightings. But we don't know enough about whether the population is sufficient that it can ever catch hold on its own.

Is Defenders going to support reintroduction efforts for the jaguar into New Mexico and Arizona?

We're only examining it at this point. We don't know enough about it, and don't know what the potential is for natural re-colonization. If you can have that, we all prefer it. It's cheaper, and locals seem to accept it more easily when it happens in a natural way. But in many places, it simply won't happen unless you reintroduce a species, for the success rate is very small.

Is it likely that the lynx could become extinct in the U.S.?

Certainly. In fact, we're engaged in a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service right now in the northern Rockies, to try and force them to list the lynx on the Endangered Species list. At first, we won our suit against them when they said there was no case for it to be listed. As soon as the judge ruled in our favor, they moved to their backup position of 'Well, okay, we know it's warranted—we were kidding you before, but listing it is precluded by other things.' It's basically political. When you get to critters with teeth-predators—they'd just as soon avoid having them return.

How can people be best prepared for an increased likelihood that they will encounter a bear, mountain lion or wolf on a park visit?

These are totally different species. Usually, people are out there trying really hard to see if they can encounter them. The visitation in Yellowstone and in other parks is way up because of the popularity of wolves. People consider their visit an incredible success if they've been able to see a wolf in the wild or hear one howl. And wolves aren't a significant danger to human beings, so people don't really become concerned about that.

The grizzly bear is another matter. If you're going to be hiking in their territory, there's plenty of literature that parks provide to prepare you for exactly what you should do. In Glacier National Park, for example, they encourage people to carry little bells because the last thing you want to do is surprise one of these creatures.

How likely is it that gray wolves will be taken off of the Endangered Species list in the next few years?

The ultimate goal of reintroducing them into the northern Rockies is to get them delisted. We think it could be possible in the next three to five years. In the official recovery plan for the gray wolf, there are standards that are set up that have to be met so you can proceed with delisting. You have to have three populations of gray wolves in central Idaho, Glacier National Park and the Yellowstone ecosystem that have at least 10 packs that breed successfully for three consecutive years; over 100 wolves total in each place. If that's met, the basic threshold for delisting will have been reached. The goal of the Act is to return viable populations to the wild. If it accomplishes that, it's doing its job.

TRACEY C. REMBERT is Managing Editor of E.