Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced it would strip protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for gray wolves in the lower 48 states. As a result management for wolves will now largely be a state agency responsibility. The one exception is the Mexican wolf, a subspecies found in Arizona and New Mexico that will remain listed.
The wolf delisting is already a reality in states where 97 percent of all wolves currently reside. The USFWS had already transferred management of the wolves back to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming as well as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan in the Upper Midwest. So wolf delisting would primarily affect wolves that may colonize or already reside in other adjacent states like Oregon, Colorado, Utah, and Washington. Since wolf delisting more than 1,175 wolves have been killed in the West.
I, as well as many other ecologists, and activists believe delisting is premature for several reasons.
Wolves only occupy a fraction of their former habitat. Recognizing that much of its former habitat is no longer suitable for wolf restoration (we are not going to have wolves cruising through the corn fields of the Midwest or chasing prey in urban areas), there is, nevertheless, still plenty of unoccupied but good habitat in states like Colorado and Utah, parts of Oregon, Washington and California, as well as in the Northeast, particularly Maine.
There is a fear that aggressive wolf killing in core states like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming will slow and reduce wolf recovery in these adjacent states.
It’s important to recognize that Minnesota had at least 1,600 wolves when they were listed under the ESA. In other words, when wolves were listed, even 1,600 animals was considered an insufficient number to ensure their long-term survival. Yet that total number of wolves found today in the three Rocky Mountain States of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. One is left wondering why 1,600 wolves is now considered sufficient to delist wolves in the Rockies much less in states like Oregon and Washington, which currently only have a few dozen wolves each, while this clearly was not enough to preclude listing earlier in Minnesota.
A number of carnivore specialists have written their technical objections to the proposed delisting, in particular, the USFWS proposes a new species of wolf C. lycon in the eastern US, but offers no protection for it.
Additionally, they argue that some of the wolves now colonizing parts of the Pacific Northwest originate from coastal British Columbia populations and are genetically distinct from wolves in the Rockies, thus warrant continued protection as a distinct population unit.
Beyond these genetic issues, there is reason to believe that the state wildlife agencies are not capable of managing wolves as a valued member of the national heritage. For instance, in the Rockies, once wolf management was turned over to the states, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have all embarked on a rampage of persecution. Wolves are indiscriminately killed and trapped. State wildlife officials bemoan the fact that more wolves have not been killed.
I am not worried that hunting and trapping will cause wolves to be extirpated again in these states. I do not think that is the issue for most wolf proponents. Rather, I feel, as many do, that persecution is not a valid justification for managing any wildlife species.
Unfortunately all state wildlife agencies get the bulk of their income from the sale of licenses, so have a vested financial interest in persecution of wolves.
Ironically in the Rocky Mountain States with wolves, big game numbers have largely increased with wolves. For instance in Montana since 1992, three years before wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho (there were already wolves near Glacier in northern Montana) , elk numbers have grown from 89,000 to an estimated 140,000-150,000 animals. Similar increases have been noted in Idaho and Wyoming as well.
The other major justification for wolf killing has to do with livestock depredation. But like the myth that wolves are destroying elk herds, the wolf related losses to the livestock industry are minuscule. For instance in 2012 in Montana less than 100 cattle were verified killed by wolves out of a total number of more than 2.5 million animals. That Is not to suggest that the losses to individual ranchers might not represent a financial strain, but the industry as a whole is not threatened. What’s more, there are numerous non-lethal measures that could be adopted to further reduce even these low numbers of losses.
In any case, offending wolves can be surgically removed on a case by case basis without the need for widespread indiscriminate hunting/trapping.
Nevertheless, the perception among hunters as well as ranchers in Montana and adjacent states is that wolves are destroying hunting opportunity and severely impacting the livestock industry. Because of this perception, the state wildlife agencies in all three states, instead of actively countering these flawed opinions with solid numbers and records, have instead chosen to ignore reality and adopted aggressive wolf reduction hunting and trapping policies.
I have to admit that politically it is very difficult for state agencies to appear as if they are promoting wolves given the attitude of many hunters. Still their job is to be advocates for all wildlife, not just the species that are of interest to hunters. And if hunters viewpoints are based upon fallacious ideas than state agencies have a responsibility to respond aggressively to counter those falsehoods, not aggressively seek to kill predators.
This persecution also violates ethical codes which state agencies promote against “wanton waste” of wildlife. (Of course, they also permit the indiscriminate killing of ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and coyotes to name a few species that apparently fall outside the prohibition on “wanton waste.”)
There is growing evidence that state wildlife agencies are ignoring a host of scientific research that suggests indiscriminate killing (hunting and trapping) can exacerbate conflicts. Hunted/trapped wolf populations are often skewed towards younger animals that are less experienced and skillful hunters. Packs are fragmented into smaller unit, reducing hunting efficiency and the ability to hold good habitat against other predators. In the end, this can result in greater livestock depredation, which, of course, in turn leads to more calls for predator reductions.
The other problem with state agency management is that none—so far—appear willing to recognize the important role of predators in ecosystem function. Predators can remove sick animals from the population. They can selectively take older and younger animals, leaving behind a healthier and more robust population of elk, deer, or moose.
Although there is some controversy over whether wolves can radically alter habitat use by prey like elk, there is abundant evidence from the study of other species as well as other regions that the presence of wolves can alter habitat use. For instance, it is theorized that the mere presence of wolves forces elk to be more alert, and to avoid areas of high predation risk (if there are other alternative foraging areas available).
Wolves can also provide carrion for other wildlife from ravens to grizzly bears.
In any event, the overall effect of wolf delisting is to turn back management to state agencies who clearly are unwilling to fully evaluate the benefits of wolves to ecosystem function, nor willing to counter inaccurate perceptions among hunters and livestock owners.
Until state wildlife agencies demonstrate to me that they will be responsible wolf advocates, I cannot support turning management decisions to them. Why give them the keys to the car, if they continue to demonstrate they have not matured sufficiently to warrant a driver’s license?
Black & grey female wolf from the Druid Pack in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Jim Peaco, courtesy National Park Service.