Monday, September 26, 2011

Rural states that cry “Wolf!”

After hundreds of years of eradication by unrestricted hunting and habitat destruction, the grey wolf population in the United States has been making a small comeback.

The Federal Government, under the Endangered Species Act, has sought to reintroduce wolves to areas that can support them. These efforts have been limited to very rural areas with lots of remote federal or state controlled land because wolves need space, natural food sources, and limited human interaction to thrive.

It is estimated that the U.S. has well over 9,000 wolves. Alaska has the most with an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 wolves. Minnesota has about 2,900 with some spreading out into Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. Both of these states never lost their native populations and were deemed not in danger of extinction. Both have been allowed to manage their wolf populations with limited federal intervention, management that includes limited hunting.

Problems have arisen, however, in states that have had wolves successfully reintroduced: Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Wolves were wiped out in all three, but through reintroduction and some natural migration from Canada, an estimated 1,700 wolves now roam in the Northern Rockies and Yellowstone National Park today, up from an estimated 1,200 in 2006.

The original federal plan was to bring the wolf population in the Rockies up to 300. The plan was crafted with input from ranchers, land owners, conservationists, and animal rights activists about the impact wolves would have on local areas and the conditions needed for successful reintroduction.

The success of the protection plan created a population nearly six times the originally planned 300. The population is now big enough to prompt the federal government to remove the wolf from the protection list in those states and call the effort a great success. The de-listing gave the states the right to manage wolves in all areas within their borders except within the boundaries of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

When the wolf was first de-listed in 2008, all three states rushed to implement the wolf management plans that they had submitted to U.S. Fish and Wildlife prior to the de-listing. All three states submitted plans that included hunting wolves. These pro-hunting plans came about in part because of intense pressure from ranchers (angry about livestock killed by wolves) and hunters (both hunters who wanted to hunt wolves and hunters who complained of reduced populations of other game animals because of wolf predation).

These plans came under intense scrutiny by animal rights groups. These groups sued to stop the hunts. Federal District Court Judge Donald Molloy agreed with the animal activists that the revised plan violated the Endangered Species Act and issued an injunction to stop the planned hunts and state management of the wolves. Judge Molloy deemed the populations were too fragile to be managed by the states and opined that the wolves required continued protection by the federal government.

Before leaving office, the Bush Administration again removed the wolf from the protected list in January 2009, but did agree that Wyoming’s wolf population was too weak to support hunting and kept those wolves on this list. Judge Molloy countered in 2010, finding again that the plans violated the Endangered Species Act, but not before planned wolf hunts occurred in Montana and Idaho in 2009. In response to Judge Molloy’s second ruling, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (MT) and U.S. Representative Mike Simpson (ID) added a provision to a 2011 spending bill that again de-listed wolves in Idaho and Montana. This of course has spawned a new round of lawsuits. A U.S. District Court judge in Montana granted a summary judgment in favor of the government on August 3, 2011. Yet the judgment is sure to be appealed.

The ruling caused quite a row about federalism, separation of powers, and the role of law in conservation efforts. A friend of mine once asked “who is better at wildlife management: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the respective state agencies filled with biologists and game management experts… or is it a Federal judge with no ‘practical’ experience?” Of course my friend conveniently forgot that Judge Molloy was a native and lifelong resident of Montana who probably has lots of “practical” rural legal experience.

There is a lot of anger and rhetoric being tossed around. Rural Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are heavily dependent on ranching and hunting for revenue. Ranchers are angry about predation by wolves that not only kill valuable stock, but also put stress on living stock that results in lost weight and health. Hunters are angry because wolves have put a large dent in elk and deer populations in some wilderness areas, prompting them to find other places to hunt. Elk hunts generate between $600 and $1,000 per hunter in fee revenue alone, let alone the private economic impact of guide and butchering profits. The temptation of fees gathered for wolf licenses and tags in already cash strapped states is also a factor for states.

States also face the conflict of trying to return wilderness areas to their pre-white settlement state. Most Americans want the wild places of U.S. to be as vibrant as the once were, and that vibrant picture should include wolves. To the surprise of some, many hunters side with protecting a healthy wild wolf population. But the size of that population and how to manage it is the dividing force.

Ed Bangs, the man who was in charge of the area's wolf reintroduction for 16 years, stated in 2011 upon his retirement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that “The best science clearly documents that wolves are fully recovered and will not be threatened in the future. We are rock solid… It’s time to move on.” ( Bugle, Vol. 28, Issue 5, Pg. 63, Sep/Oct 2011) But it is unclear in the emotional and legal tug-o-war that is occurring in this rural area if we ever will move on. And as wolves are being reported in Oregon and Washington, it is a struggle that appears will be affecting more rural areas in the future.

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1 comment:

Taylor Call said...

One thing that is rarely mentioned when the wolf introduction is brought up is that these wolves that were "reintroduced," are not the same wolves that evolved in the Yellowstone and surrounding areas, genetically speaking. Regardless, with the reintroduction, the wolfs' prey have been changing their patterns. The elk stick to the treeline more and don't eat vegetation down to the ground. Instead they raise their heads more often to look for wolves. This benefits the vegetation and allows it to grow taller. This allows the beaver (although now on the wolf's menu as well) to utilize this vegetation for food and shelter. This allows more beaver dams which helps during drought conditions and also benefits aquatic insects and fish. This is called a "trophic cascade" and can be very beneficial to the environment.

However, scientists, judges, and politicians should be wary of too many wolves on an ecosystem. I am unaware about how much research has been done on wolves and overpopulation, but for now it seems to not be a huge problem. Many wolves leave the pack to search for a place to establish their own. This has spread wolves much farther and faster than what scientists originally expected. There is now a family of wolves in Siskiyou County, California. There are 2 adults and 5 pups, known as the Shasta Pack

For article about the trophic cascade, see below:

For photos of wolf pack in CA, see below: