By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Hunters have killed 299 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, as the trophy hunting season approaches its rough midpoint later this month.

Wolves in Lamar Canyon (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies)

Wolf in Lamar Canyon (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies.)

Even more have been killed in the Upper Midwest, where trophy hunting of wolves also is underway. But one ecosystem at a time. First, the Rocky Mountain gray wolves.

Trapping is beginning in the three states and will add to those kill totals in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming (tallied through Dec. 6). One can envision that if the season proceeds apace, 500 to 600 wolves will be killed, perhaps more. Last year, the total “harvest” for the season was 611 wolves in the three states. Some pups were born in the interim, but now another 600 wolves are facing the bullet (or a leg trap) in the 2013-2014 hunting.

That would mean that more than one-third of the estimated 1,600 wolves (+ an unknown number of pups) in the three-state region will be gone. (That 1,600 population estimate is the number believed to be alive at the end of 2012, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).)

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that pretty soon state wildlife officials could get their wish of managing the wolf population down to about 400 animals in the three-state region. Their justification for keeping the wolf numbers low: wolves prey on livestock. It’s a real problem. At their peak, wolves killed hundreds of cattle and calves annually in the three states, according to federal officials.

Wildlife experts say the predation is exaggerated, with some cattle deaths attributable to other factors. In addition, wolf kills of livestock, they say, could be reduced by better managing grazing on public lands and through the use of fladry to frighten the wolves away from herds. Oregon, which passed a coexistence law, is trying to establish a more tolerant approach that provides for wolves and ranches.

But there’s another facet to the wolf debate. Hunters are worried that wolves may be the reason elk herds have declined in some areas. The reasons for the periodic dips, though, are likely multi-faceted, with elk herds suffering from disease and bad weather.

For hunters, this third wolf season is a big victory, except for that Catch-22 that the aggressive wolf killing may extinguish the opportunity for more of the same in the near future. But for the moment, the wolf is a new trophy animal to pursue. Like other trophy targets, such as the black bear and the mountain lion, wolves are killed for sport, for bragging rights, as compared with deer or elk hunting, which fills freezers with meat.

Conservationists are worried about the Rocky Mountain wolves. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, The Center for Biological Diversity and the National Wildlife Federation are all fighting to restore protections for the wolves, or at least stop the pending removal of protections nationwide.

Wolves in Yellowstone, NPS photo

Wolves in Yellowstone (Photo: National Park Service)

Many don’t believe the Rocky Mountain wolf population, which might have reached about 2,000 at its peak three to five years ago, was sufficiently recovered to sustain the bombardment of hunters. They think hunting will at best drive the wolves into remote regions, where they may or may not survive and will lack important genetic breeding connections to other packs; at worst, bring on a second extinction of the wolves in the lower 48 states. In the latter scenario, history would repeat itself, with hunters and trappers annihilating the wolves in the lower 48 states as they did in the first half of the 20th Century. (A sliver population survived in Northern Minnesota and Michigan.)

Most importantly, the conservation groups say the focus on killing predators overlooks their importance in healthy ecosystems. Sierra explains this on their website:

Wolves are vitally important to maintaining the natural balance, culling out weak and sick animals to keep populations of elk and deer healthy and in check. The rippling benefits of wolf reintroduction can be seen throughout the region– from the reappearance of willow and aspen trees, to the return of beavers, and increased populations of red foxes.

Managing the wolves “down” also ignores that this wild animal once counted the entire country as its native range, notes the Center for Biological Diversity, which is fighting the Obama Administration proposal to lift protections for wolves across the rest of the U.S. (In addition to the three Rocky Mountain states, the FWS has delisted the wolf in Minnesota, Wyoming and Michigan, where hunting also has commenced.)

The Center maintains that wolves are entitled to more space and also that a more tolerant policy toward them would benefit many species.

Since the original wolf recovery plans were written in the 1980s, we’ve learned much more about wolves’ behavior, ecology and needs. We know, for example, that returning wolves to ecosystems sets off a chain of events that benefits many species, including songbirds and beavers that gain from a return of streamside vegetation — which thrives in the absence of browsing elk that must move more often to avoid wolves — and pronghorn and foxes that are aided by wolves’ control of coyote populations.

After their mass extinction in the 20th Century, the gray wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1973 and reintroduced into the Rocky Mountain West in the mid-1990s.

Within a decade it was clear the animals were thriving in the wild spaces of Idaho, Montana and to a lesser extent Wyoming. The habitat was perfect. The wolves were able to live off their preferred natural prey, the elk.

But as the wolves recovered, ranchers experienced their presence as a nuisance or deadly threat, depending on the situation. The wolves preyed on cattle, though environmentalists noted that often lethal encounters took place on public lands  near wilderness, and during calving season, drawing the wolves into a situation that could have been obviated by keeping the cattle on fenced or guarded private property.

Wolf pups (Photo: Larry Allen)

Wolf pups are expected to regenerate the population, but will they? (Photo: Larry Allen)

Federal and state game officials decided the wolves had become too successful and after several years of trying, they succeeded in removing the wolves from the ESA list, clearing them for hunting. Environmentalists protested, saying the rugged mountain landscape needed this apex predator, who had fit neatly back into the wild ecosystem. But by 2011, the wildlife conservationists lost their last court challenge. The wolves were returned to state management and transitioned from sheltered to trophy animal status, with a number or quota on their back.

The hunts began and even Yellowstone Park quickly lost radio-collared wolves that had been studied by biologists and photographed by tourists for years. The wolves were fair game when they stepped out of the park, where hunting is not allowed. Rifle fire brought down the legendary ’06, a beloved Alpha female that had been the pride of the park.

Meanwhile, in another ecosystem, the Upper Midwest, wolf hunts also began as the FWS lifted wolf protections for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. At this point in the 2013 season, 27 wolves out of a quota of 132 have been killed in Minnesota; 219 out of a quota of 251 in Wisconsin and 19 out of a quota of 43 in Michigan, where there are many fewer wolves. Grand total in the Upper Great Lakes wolf hunting territories: 370. (The hunting quotas have been less aggressive relative to the total population in Minnesota, but wolf hunting has been controversial with conservationists questioning, and sometimes protesting, game officials.)

With wolf hunting underway in the states where the wolves mainly reside, the Obama Administration officially proposed lifting ESA protections for all wolves in the lower 48 states (except for a small section of AZ and NM where the Mexican wolf struggles near extinction). This proposal has been hugely upsetting to environmentalists, who had hoped the animals would be allowed to randomly reestablish themselves in states like California, Utah and Colorado or New York, where wooded, mountainous areas offer ideal habitat, but which have not had wolf populations for decades. Wolf migration into potentially “friendly” states would give the wolves a foothold on survival, they say.

The public has until Dec. 17 to comment on the plan to lift protections across the U.S. The Center for Biological Diversity has set up a protest letter for use by those who support wolf conservation.

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