By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
America’s wolves got a reprieve this week, though only a tiny one. The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is extending the public comment period on the pending nationwide delisting of the gray wolves from protections under the Endangered Species Act.
That will give wolf advocates more time to protest the delisting, until Dec. 17, in compensation for the loss of comment time during the recent government shutdown. In addition, public hearings on the delisting proposal have been rescheduled for November 19, 20, 22 in Denver, Albuquerque and Sacramento, respectively.
But while the potential wholesale delisting of the gray wolves in the lower 48 states (minus a swath of Arizona and New Mexico) has been pushed back, there’s been no respite for wolves in the rifle scopes of hunters in states where the wolves have already lost federal protections.
Hunting started weeks or months ago in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where most of the US Rocky Mountain gray wolves live.
So far, (as of Oct. 23) 148 wolves have been killed by trophy hunters in the 2013-2014 season in these three states — 77 in Idaho, 41 in Wyoming and 30 in Montana.
Several additional wolves have been killed as “predators,” shot in territories where shooting wolves on sight is allowed (in most of Wyoming) or in incidents in which the wolves had been shown to be preying on livestock. (In Wyoming, 29 wolves have been killed in incidents labeled “other mortality” and are not counted toward hunting quotas.)
The number of wolves “harvested” will undoubtedly multiply, probably reaching several hundred, as hunting with rifles continues in the states until the season ends in mid-winter, spring or next summer, depending on the region. Trapping seasons, which begin later, will add to the toll.
During last year’s 2012-13 season, 319 wolves were killed by hunting or trapping in Idaho; 225 were killed by hunters or trappers in Montana; 67 were killed in Wyoming in both its hunting and predatory zones. The grand total: 611.
Advocates say this level of hunting is too aggressive, and will wipe out the wolf population, just as over-hunting exterminated the wolves in the middle of the 20th Century across most of the US.
Game management officials say the wolves will regenerate, settling in at lower, but still sustainable population levels, as the packs have pups in the spring.
Indeed, at the end of 2012, an estimated 1,674 wolves, organized in 321 packs, remained in the Northern Rocky Mountain region, a number that suggested the wolves were weathering the hunting that began the previous year, according to the FWS.
“Wolf restoration in the Northern Rocky Mountains (NRM) has been an amazing success thanks to both the resiliency of wolves and the cooperative efforts of Federal, State, and Tribal agencies, conservation groups, and private citizens; including ranchers, sportsmen, and outfitters,” said Gavin G. Shire, public affairs specialist for the FWS.
Regeneration, though, won’t be a given for every pack. Wolves are intensely social, and the hunting is dispersing and disrupting their family structure, say experts.
Earlier this month, Wyoming reported five wolves killed over a few days in one of the state’s hunting regions near Yellowstone National Park, raising alarms that a park pack had been wiped out. Wyoming’s Fish & Game officials have not reported back with information on those shootings. But the nature of that “harvest” suggests that one pack could have been devastated. In such situations, the remaining wolves often fail to survive, let alone breed, after the loss of family members. Biologists warn that the longterm survival of US wolves is imperiled.
A current Move.org petition to keep the wolves protected complains about this problematic aspect of shooting wolves: “The killing has taken place without regard to the fact that wolves mate for life and form strong bonds, raising their young in extended families that cooperate in providing for the whole. . . ”
THE BIG PICTURE
No one knows exactly how many wolves are left in the U.S. Northern Rockies. Estimates suggest that close to 2,000 wolves were present at the peak of their recovery about 2006-2007, after being reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s, when gray wolves from Canada were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
About 12 years later, federal game officials decided that the wolves had regained sufficient numbers to delist the animals and began the required process of gathering information and holding the requisite public hearings .
Conservationists opposed the de-listing, arguing that the wolves were not adequately recovered.
A longterm robust recovery for the wolves would require an ongoing population of “at least 2,000 to 3,000” animals in the upper U.S. Rockies, says EarthJustice’s Doug Honnold. A managing attorney for EarthJustice in San Francisco, Honnold served for two decades in Earthjustice’s Montana office and remains the lead attorney working on behalf of wolf conservation.
Honnold led a coalition of conservation and wildlife advocates that clashed in court with federal officials, who wanted to turn over wolf management to the states.
State and federal officials said that “managing” the wolves down to lower population levels would avert predation on livestock, but still allow several wolf packs to survive.
Advocates countered that the livestock losses had been relatively small, were often reimbursed and also were the consequence of ranchers grazing cattle and sheep on public lands near wild spaces, where the herds were more vulnerable.
If the ranchers took precautions, like not allowing calving on public grazing leases, the advocates maintained, the wolves would rely on their natural prey of deer and elk.
Some ranchers countered that any predation by wolves was too much; they couldn’t afford it. Many hunters also turned up at public meetings, portraying the newly robust wolf population as a needless nuisance that depressed elk and deer numbers.
Coexistence among all these groups proved elusive.
The back and forth spanned the late Bush years into the Obama Administration, and in the spring of 2011 Congress ordered the delisting of wolves in Montana and Idaho. Wyoming’s wolves were delisted later after state officials made adjustments to a management plan that had been deemed too harsh. The three states took over management of the wolves, set hunting seasons and pledged to keep a population of 300 wolves across the region, which the FWS had set as a sustainable level.
Later the states agreed to manage the wolves, at least initially, to a higher minimum of 150 wolves per state, Shire said, noting that these wolves are merely an extension of a vast, much larger population of about 65,000 wolves ranging across Canada and Alaska.
Wildlife proponents have never liked the 300 number, holding that scientific research shows the wolves need a greater foothold to maintain their biological niche in the rugged mountain ecosystems. A hardy genetic pool requires inter-breeding across packs, and that won’t happen if the wolves are too dispersed, they said.
(Over this same period, wolves were delisted in the northern Great Lakes region, which had been a wolf stronghold, and hunting, and the debate over numbers, began in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well.)
Apex predators are needed to sustain other wildlife, even their natural prey, say those who maintain the wolves should be left alone. They hold up even the health of their traditional prey, and exert a ripple effect, as do all animals in the life web, that strengthens their ecosystem.
Thousands of tourists who visit Yellowstone National Park armed only with binoculars also are be cheated, say wolf proponents. Honnold says one economist’s study found that wolf tourism generates $35 million in annual economic activity in and around the park. (In 2011, officials counted 98 wolves living in YNP; in Dec. 2012 the park experienced a shot heard around the wolf fan community when a hunter killed a well-known Yellowstone alpha female known as 06.)
The arguments on behalf of wolves seemed to become less audible, though, as the hunters’ bullets flew, making clear who’d won the latest round in the wolf debate.
Wildlife biologists renewed their pleas on behalf of the wolves earlier this year when the Obama Administration proposed the virtual nationwide delisting..
Sixteen scientists wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel in May to protest that the gray wolf “has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains.”
The new FWS proposed rule to remove gray wolf protections across the board (except for the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico), “fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast,” the scientists wrote.
“It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions.”
The scientists saw vast suitable territory for US gray wolves, but officialdom did not. The FWS explained on its website that it had “erroneously included” too many areas outside the wolves’ historic range when it first protected the wolves in 1978. That was the rationale for removing virtually all the gray wolves from endangered species status.
In Honnold’s view, though, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s new plan to kick the wolves off protections came about simply because FWS is “sick and tired” of being ensnared in wolf management issues. It wanted to escape the thorny issues and return all authority to the states.
BIG BAD WOLVES
The wolves, meanwhile, are stuck with the fate that humans elect for them. In addition to dodging bullets, they face another more ephemeral enemy: their bad boy image.
Unfair practices include unlimited wolf hunting in many areas, electronic calling to lure wolves (which some hunters consider unethical) and the failure to provide a hunting buffer near Yellowstone National Park, he says.
“Because of special interest influence and an irrational hatred for wolves we are seeing what is clearly non-science based management of wolves. Make no mistake this is persecution of wolves and other carnivores that call the Rockies their home,” says Cooke, a conservationist and veteran who lives in Missoula.
“Wolves are treated differently from other large keystone predators. Mountain lions and bears all have quotas to control the harvest numbers. Why don’t wolves?” he asks. (The states have some quotas in selected regions.)
Wolves evoke strong feelings among humans, as revealed by the nearly 3,000 public comments online at the government’s website Regulations.gov.
Many of those commenting express their love, awe and admiration for these “beautiful creatures”, cousins of man’s best friend. A perusal of the comments indicates that the vast majority of those writing support keeping protections for gray wolves. A minority of those commenting say the wolves should be delisted and hunted. The comments give the gist of the debate and the flavor of the emotion around this matter. (People can post comments through Dec. 17.)
THOSE IN FAVOR OF KEEPING THE WOLVES PROTECTED SAY:
- Wolves are a part of the ecosystem and are needed to keep nature in balance. Several commenters warned against “playing God” with nature, noting that USFWS expertise doesn’t rise to that level.
- 16 Scientists wrote to oppose the new FWS delisting plan and that should be enough. Several commenters including one behavioral ecologist tried to explain the science: “It is time to quit humoring those that refuse to listen to science. Wolves are an essential part of the escape, and all of their populations must be protected. If you fail to do this, for wolves and our other large carnivores, the US will eventually become a boring mono-culture bound for collapse. Therefore, increase protections for wolves, increase reintroduction of Mexican Grey wolves, and increase the punishments for those that violate US federal laws when they illegally kill endangered species.”
- Removing protections and allowing hunting, fails to give the wolves an opportunity to migrate to and repopulate in their natural habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, Colorado and even in parts of the Northeast, noted some.
- The part of the FWS rule that provides for reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf into the Southwest should stay, though it should not designate the Mexican wolves as “non-essential” to this biological region. Wild wolves — only 75 remain in the wild — are essential to bring back this subspecies. (The FWS disagrees, maintaining that the wild population is not essential because Mexican gray wolves in captivity could be used to spur the species forward.)
- The wolf hunts a slaughter or a “war on wolves”. “Over 1100 wolves killed [since hunting has been revived] is not a management plan, but another extermination plan,” said one commenter. Said another: “You wouldn’t stand for your dog to have its head chopped off and hung on your mailbox, would you?
THOSE IN FAVOR OF DELISTING THE WOLVES SAY:
- Hunting should be allowed for the wolves because they are predators that interfere with livestock and wild herd animals. One hunter summed up for many: “I was hoping that the people pushing the Mexican Wolf program take a lesson from Wisconsin, Wyoming and Alaska: more wolves, less big game animals, less cattle, less horses, less pets and more dissatisfied sportsmen and women. Arizona could use more game animals not less. NO MORE WOLVES.”
· Comments from the pro-hunting side are in the minority at Regulations.gov; though hunters and hunting outfitter and safari groups have been wildly enthused about the advent of wolf hunting in the US West. Their pictures of smiling hunters holding up dead wolves populate the Internet. For some, hunting, tracking and assisting big game hunters is a business.
Over this winter, the US FWS will proceed to collect comments and hold hearings, while groups such as EarthJustice, Wolves of the Rockies and Defenders of Wildlife reengage their members in the cause. Conservationists, ranchers and hunters and anyone who’s interested will be able to weigh in at the comments site and the hearings. But the FWS has decided the gray wolf should be removed from the ESA protections.
“The goal of the ESA is not to recreate the past,” explains Shire. “The goal is to protect species from extinction. Once a species is no longer in danger of extinction (now or in the foreseeable future), our job under the ESA is done. We have far too many species that desperately need help; we cannot afford to continue to invest scarce resources on species that have recovered.”
When, and if, the agency opts to delist the gray wolves, Honnold vows his group will be ready with a sheaf of science reports and legal briefs.
“We’ll meet them in federal court to make sure they [the wolves] stay listed,” he said, “or do our level best to try to accomplish that.”
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