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Dead wolves, dead cattle, dwindling West

 Posted by on March 10, 2010
Mar 102010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Every so often I pause and wonder about the Rocky Mountain wolves, which were de-listed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2009 and hunted for sport for the first time in decades.

I have thought about the wolves periodically all this winter, as they’ve been hunted in Idaho. As of today, 172 wolves have been killed there, just shy of the 220 kill limit set by the state, where the wolf season ends March 31. Last fall, in Montana, 72 wolves were killed, just short of the 75 wolf limit.

I’m not sure why their plight touched me so much. I think it’s their intelligence and curiosity that tugs at my emotions. Sensing humans nearby, they will peek out from their cover to see, only to get shot. And there’s the fact that they’re pack animals, dependent on an enduring family structure and very much like us in that regard.

The wolves have been top of mind for others. Many environmentalists have been furious about the hunting and want the wolves brought back under ESA protection. They’ve sued and a hearing is anticipated in federal court this spring. They argue that the wolf population, which stands at around 1,200 in the three U.S. states they’ve repopulated, should not be considered “recovered” until the total is closer to 2,000. Their scientists say this would ensure a healthy population and enough family packs that could interbreed across distances.

The federal guidelines for the wolves’ recovery, though, only require that the states leave 300 wolves alive — an unsustainable level say groups such as EarthJustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council and others that are suing.

There are ranchers, though, who would argue that’s more than enough wolves for the modern West, which has tense co-existence with these animals. Even more than tense when wolves take a swipe out of a sheep herd or run a lethal assault on groups of calves.

Environmentalists respond that ranchers are entitled to reimbursement for livestock losses, as well as help from groups like Defenders of Wildlife that assist ranchers with techniques to protect livestock. They also point out that ranchers can legally shoot predator wolves.

There’s another argument made on behalf of wolves — that they’re necessary top-level predators.

It doesn’t take a degree in environmental biology to understand that the Rocky Mountain region needs healthy predators in its wild areas. Top predators elevate and assure vigorous animal populations throughout the food chain. That’s how nature intended it.

If humans remove the top predators, they risk a cascading negative effect on wildlife systems. Or as my husband says, they risk coyotes. When the wolves are gone, the coyotes will become the top predators in the once Wild West. Will we be better off? Then we’ll have to shoot all the coyotes. (People already do this with little provocation.) What’s next? A handful of wolverine. They’re so scarce, you can barely find them.

But you get the idea. We can squeeze down on the entire system, until we have just a handful of smaller carnivores, a few hundred birds of prey. We’d have a glorified zoo. See how the system is out of whack?

And even as I write this I can hear some rancher saying, so we restore the West on my back? At what price? My herd?

After awhile, the back and forth will wear you out. Leaving aside the debate over how many wolves are too many or too few. One thing seems true: the great Mountain West  just ain’t what it used to be, and redefining matters won’t be easy.

Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says the answer lies in finding a good balance. And, he adds, that will be discovered at some point below today’s levels of wolves. How can you tell there are too many? Easy, they’re claiming too much livestock.

“We continue to take out depredating wolves. It’s pretty clear that we still have wolves where there’s no tolerance from the livestock community,” he says. And by that he means, a justified intolerance.

Aasheim says he also understands the desire to save the wolves from extinction in the U.S. Montana supports a recovered population and even has a law that says so. What’s more, this is the state that brought back the Grizzly bear to healthy numbers, he says.

Wildlife advocates need to see that there are life-and-death issues on both sides of the fence. He cites a recent two-day rampage in which wolves killed 122 sheep. “We have to reach a balance of what is reasonable depredation on livestock. We know there will be some depredation.”

What about that government reimbursement for losses? Those funds are limited, he says.

Of course Montana’s 72 wolf take, if you’re going to be practical about it, was far less than where Idaho set the bar, at 220.

Idaho has more wolves in total than Montana, in the neighborhood of 900, and declining space for them. While Montana was derided this past season for killing a pack of wolves that lived in Yellowstone (when they roamed off  protected park lands), Idaho has shown a nasty streak with regard to the wolves. Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter seemed to lower the level of discussion there right off when he declared he wanted to be the first one to take a wolf. (He’s more circumspect, but still frustrated in news releases on the topic.)

Now, as the Idaho season comes to a close the end of this month, come rumblings that some people are dissatisfied with the number of wolves taken. Idaho game officials are concerned about dwindling elk populations in certain areas, and told the Idaho Statesman that additional wolves might need to be taken. This news and more can be explored in a Switchboard blog by Sylvia Fallon, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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