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Trapped by Bureaucrats: The Gray Wolf’s Struggle For Survival

Environment Policy Brief #135 | By: Tim Loftus | November 2, 2021

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Policy Summary

After a century of slaughter that brought an iconic species of the North American landscape to the brink of extinction, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was among the first species to gain protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974. The ESA had just been signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon the year before and prohibited the “taking” of a listed species without explicit permission. “Taking” meant killing, harassing, or damaging habitat necessary for the survival and recovery of the species. The designation applied to all remaining wolf populations, small as they had become, in the lower-48 states. 

After 20 relatively quiet years that allowed wolves the freedom to live as they once did, and guided by a growing body of scientific evidence, perhaps the most famous wolf reintroduction effort got underway in 1995 when 14 wolves from Canada were captured and released in Yellowstone National Park. An additional 11 wolves were released the following year. Yellowstone had been without this keystone species and apex predator since the 1920’s and at that time, nobody anticipated the negative impact that the extermination of wolves would have on the larger ecosystem. Wolves had always been a part of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and their return had profound effects, known as a trophic cascade, on restoring the ecological health and integrity of the diverse area contained within the park.

Wolf populations began to rebuild in Yellowstone and elsewhere and in 2003, their status was reclassified as “threatened.” Under the ESA, a threatened species has less protection than one classified as “endangered.” The next several years witnessed considerable back-and-forth between the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), charged with upholding protections for ESA-listed species, and the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Litigation commenced over the status of wolves in these three Rocky Mountain states and their state management plans for wolf survival once listing status moved from endangered to threatened. 

Northern Rocky Mountain wolves were officially delisted in March 2008, but once again, the matter was far from being settled as ESA-protections were reinstated later that summer. Early in 2009, the new Obama Administration affirmed the FWS decision to delist wolves in Idaho, Montana, and a handful of other states. With the exception of Wyoming, where wolves would remain under federal protection, states with wolf populations were to take responsibility for their management. 

After the legal killing of hundreds of wolves in Idaho and Montana, ESA protections were restored in August of 2010, but an “end-around” strategy of removing protections legislatively was fashioned to an unrelated appropriations bill that was signed into law a year later. It is believed that Senator John Tester (D-MT), up for reelection in 2012, was responsible for this part of the bill that required the Interior Secretary to reissue the 2009 rule to remove ESA protections for all northern Rocky Mountain wolves except those living in Wyoming. 

The fraught relationship between the ESA and wolves continued. While ESA protections were reinstated for Wyoming and three Great Lakes states, lack of protections continued in Idaho and Montana where the former sanctioned unprecedented, if not illegal, helicopter intrusions into the largest-forested wilderness area in the lower-48 states to kill wolves. The activity of Idaho and Montana state officials was not only in contrast to American public opinion, but in direct conflict with the best available science. 

Following a replay of the “litigation ping-pong” that best characterizes northern gray wolf legal status and management purview since 2008, the Trump Administration made final a delisting rule in October 2020 for all gray wolves in the lower-48 states with one exception: Mexican gray wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) isolated in an area of reintroduction that straddles the central Arizona and New Mexico state line. 

This year, the Republican-controlled state legislatures of both Idaho and Montana have passed laws, viewed as extreme by many, that will widen the scope of wolf killing in terms of both means and length of the killing season. In response to two petitions calling for gray wolves to be (re)listed under the ESA as either threatened or endangered, the FWS announced on September 15 that in light of the substantial and credible information presented, “a listing action may be warranted and will initiate a comprehensive status review of the gray wolf in the western U.S.” The FWS will determine next year if a listing is warranted following a 12-month analysis and updated finding of gray wolf status. 

Policy Analysis

The American public would be forgiven if many are confused about the status of gray wolves vis-à-vis the ESA and state management roles. As sentient, social, and family-oriented creatures, wolves must simply cope with the lethal response that they may encounter as an accident of where they happen to live. And the nature of that response has become more varied, high-tech, and favorable for efficient extermination. 

Some elected officials, including many of those in Idaho and Montana, have long been influenced by hunting/trapping and ranching industry lobbyists whose views are strictly anthropocentric, allergic to science, and promoted in isolation from an understanding of ecosystem health and integrity. This time-honored antipathy towards wolves has now culminated in new state legislation that in Montana, for example, now legalizes the use of neck snares, night hunting, and trap baiting to go along with foot traps that had previously been the only legal means for capturing and killing wolves. Individuals can now each kill as many as ten wolves, up from five. In a state with approximately 1,200 wolves and almost 140,000 elk, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the new regulations allow the killing of 450 wolves, more than a third of the estimated population, before fish and wildlife commissioners are reengaged for a review.

The regulations in Montana stemming from HB 224, HB 225, and SB 314 were signed into law this past April by Governor Greg Gianforte (R-MT) who earlier in the year violated state hunting rules for trapping a wolf without taking a required education certification class. As reported by Montana Public Radio, he received a warning. In response to the new wolf-killing regulations codified by Governor Gianforte, seven former members of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commissioners took the highly unusual step of publicly speaking out against the new rules. 

In late September, Mountain Journal published a guest essay titled, “Montana Wolf Policies Are Destroying State’s Reputation As Beacon For Wildlife Management: Seven Respected Former Wildlife Commissioners, All Hunters, Condemn Montana Governor and Lawmakers for Their Callous, Unscientific Promotion of Wolf Slaughter.” The essay is a remarkable repudiation of the laws passed by the Montana Legislature and subsequent rules adopted by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. These official actions were taken despite significant public opposition and a dearth of scientific support.

 

Photo taken from: projectcoyote.org

In Idaho, Governor Brad Little (R-ID) signed SB 1211 that permits the killing of up to 90 percent of Idaho’s wolves. More about extermination than wildlife stewardship, the new regulations were effective July 1 and allow use of an assortment of lethal gadgetry, wolf-pursuit vehicles, and practices that will also endanger pets and nontarget species. 

Idaho’s wolf population is thought to have grown to 1,500 members since reintroduction in 1995 and represents about a quarter of the wolves living in the northern Rockies region. This largest-nondomestic member of the dog family now faces formidable obstacles to survive in a state where cattle and sheep far outnumber humans. 

New laws and wolf management plans in both Idaho and Montana will minimize their gray wolf populations to ensure that wolves will remain functionally extinct. These decisions were made for two states that ironically rank among the lowest seven in the lower-48 states in terms of population density (residents/square mile) and despite the presence of an abundance of prime-historic-wolf habitat. Furthermore, there are proven-nonlethal means for deterring wolf depredation, but these methods are overlooked by bureaucrats who now masquerade as wolf biologists and wildlife managers. 

Beyond the new state laws and rules for wolf extermination, there’s the matter of violence that racks this nation where hardly a day goes by without some new shooting and senseless killing of one human being by another. What kind of a message is being sent to young people about ethical and responsible adult behavior when the violence that we confront daily spills over to doing the same to our native wildlife? 

Killing wolves sends a confusing and contradictory message to children about hunting and its proper role in society. In an increasingly fractured society in need of a recommitment to peaceful coexistence and respect for life, state plans for killing wolves only serve to sabotage this need. 

Wolf management policies in Idaho and Montana have nothing to do with either hunting or sport. Rather, their policies are inhumane, set on wolf removal, and reflective of a mentality that prevailed over a hundred years ago. Only a relisting of wolves as an endangered species appears to offer a path to coexistence and wolf reestablishment. Furthermore, relisting will lead to more comprehensive natural resource management for the provision of ecosystem services that benefit everyone and thus, have value. 

Engagement Resources​

American Wolf Foundation. Mission and Vision — American Wolf Foundation (accessed October 28, 2021)

Blakeslee, Nate. 2017. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. New York, NY: Broadway Books. 303 p. 

Earthjustice. 2021. Timeline: The Fight for Northern Rocky Gray Wolves. Timeline: Wolves in Danger | Earthjustice (accessed October 27, 2021)

Endangered Species Coalition. Gray Wolf – Endangered Species Coalition (accessed October 28, 2021)

Idaho Conservation League. Idaho Conservation League (accessed November 1, 2021)

Idaho Fish and Game. Idaho Fish and Game | Idaho Fish and Game (accessed October 28, 2021)

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Home Page | Montana FWP (mt.gov) (accessed October 28, 2021)

Mountain Journal. 2021. “Montana Wolf Policies are Destroying State’s Reputation as Beacon for Wildlife Management” by Gary J. Wolfe, Dan Vermillion, Tim Aldrich, Shane Colton, Steve Doherty, Matt Tourtlotte, and Logan Brower. Montana Wolf Policies Are Destroying State’s Reputation As Beacon For Wildlife Management (mountainjournal.org) (accessed October 27, 2021)

Montana Public Radio. 2021. “Montana Adopts ‘Aggressive’ Wolf Hunting Regulations” by Nick Mott. Montana Adopts ‘Aggressive’ Wolf Hunting Regulations | Montana Public Radio (mtpr.org) (accessed October 27, 2021)

Pacific Wolf Coalition. About Us – Pacific Wolf Coalition (pacificwolves.org) (accessed October 28, 2021)

Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Gray wolf | Smithsonian’s National Zoo (si.edu) (accessed October 28, 2021)

Speak for Wolves. Speak for Wolves | An annual grassroots wildlife advocacy conference (accessed October 28, 2021)

The National Wildlife Federation. Gray Wolf. Gray Wolf | National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org) (accessed October 28, 2021)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2021. Press Release: Service to Initiate Status Review of Gray Wolf in Western U.S. News Releases – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (fws.gov) (accessed October 27, 2021)

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