Wolves are native to Europe, Asia and North America and once were the most widely distributed land mammal on Earth. In the early 1990s, wolves were listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Trump administration is now actively trying to delist gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act.
When deemed endangered, 35 (Canadian) wolves were introduced in Yellow National Park by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced into other wilderness areas, most notably in central Idaho. Today, there are some 2000 wolves located throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The intent was to bring an apex predator back into nature, to make the ecosystem healthier by weeding out sick and weak big game animals. At the point at which 10 to 15 breeding pairs recolonized wilderness, the wolf was to be delisted. In Idaho, where the wolf population has grown faster than in other areas, there are currently about 800 animals there divided into roughly 100 packs.
Based upon a 2016 environmental assessment, the Administration’s Agriculture Department’s Wildlife Services agency has sanctioned the expanded killing of predators: mountain lions, coyotes, bears and wolves. This federal agency carries out wolf kills at the behest of state agencies like the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Kills are very efficient and make use of helicopters and location radio collars around the necks of reintroduced wolves.
The state agencies are in turn reacting to powerful interest groups, most notably cattle ranchers and big game hunters. Several wolf packs in their entirety were exterminated recently in Idaho and Washington due to cattle being taken by wolves. Policy guidelines explain that only a minimum of four livestock animals taken by wolves over a 10-month period is sufficient to trigger a “harvesting” of a guilty wolf pack. Big-game hunters claim that elk hunting has changed “forever” due to the reintroduction of wolves.
Wolves require 9 pounds of red meat per day; their prey of choice are elk, deer and moose. Those species are more abundant in those habitats where agricultural land meets the forest. And although wildlife ecologists are certain that wolves, as a keystone species, improve wilderness areas, ranchers and sportsmen are just as certain that the wolf is exacting a steep economic and lifestyle toll. Ranchers and hunters claim they are fighting for a way of life.
According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture report: 2% of cattle and 28% of sheep losses in the country were due to predators. Wolves accounted for a small percentage of these losses: 4.9% for cattle and 1.3% for sheep. The bigger culprits are coyotes, who accounted for 40.5% of cattle and 54.3% of sheep depredation, and wild dogs responsible for 11.3% of cattle and 21.4% of sheep deaths.
In the Trump administration’s effort to delist gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act, they argue that gray wolves have entirely recovered. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated: “We propose to list or delist, open a public comment period, gather all available information about the species, and then publish a final rule with our decision, based on the best available science.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service received over 1.8 million comments opposing the proposal and more than 100 scientists formally oppose the rule change. All along, hikers and environmentalists have argued that ranchers fail to take reasonable steps to protect their cattle.
For their part, the cattle lobby opposes what they term “ballot-box biology.” They don’t believe that urban elites understand the issues on the ground. If the effort to delist the wolf does not pass, ranchers may be less likely to work with public wildlife agencies and step up their “shoot, shovel and shut up” practices.
States like Colorado and Minnesota are not waiting for another Federal ruling. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is gathering signatures to place a measure on the 2020 ballot forcing the state to reintroduce wolves. In Minnesota, there is a one-page bill aiming to restore a previous federal policy which removed federal protections from gray wolves and permitted states to set their own wolf policies.
At core though, predation and economic numbers do not explain the plight of the wolf. Their future rests upon a set of widely divergent core beliefs: are wolves and other wild predators on this planet here to serve human intentions or is their reason for being and validity independent of arbitrary human perspective?
- https://www.westernwatersheds.org/ The mission of Western Watersheds Project is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives, and legal advocacy.
- https://www.woodriverwolfproject.org/ The Wood River Wolf Project collaborative promotes the coexistence of livestock and wolves by proactively using nonlethal measures to prevent depredation.
- https://www.wolfactionfund.com/ The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (RMWAF) is an organization of committed conservationists motivated by the belief that Coloradans overwhelmingly support the gray wolf’s return to the state.
- https://centerforahumaneeconomy.org/ The Center for a Humane Economy is the first non-profit animal welfare organization that focuses on influencing the conduct of corporations to forge a humane economic order.
- https://www.conservationnw.org/ Keeping the Northwest wild since 1989, this organization connects the big landscapes, restores iconic wildlife and protects our natural heritage for future generations.
- https://www.wolfquest.org/ A game about wolf ecology in Yellowstone National Park.
Photo by Eva Blue