HOWL Colorado

Editorial: The Fall, Rise & Management of Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

This editorial takes the controversial issue and highlights issues the author sees on both sides.

The Fall, Rise & Management of Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

The federal government’s attempts to manage the wolf population in the northwestern United States over the past 20 years has been at best unpredictable and at worst atrocious.

And to each segment of our population, the mission’s mere existence meant different things:
To scientists, repopulating a community that was both in danger of extinction and crucial to the ecosystems was essential; to citizens who lived in the areas, it was reprehensible and irresponsible; to both dreamy eyed nature lovers (many of whom have never even seen a coyote, let alone a wolf) and conservationist groups isolated in coastal cities, our country was finally being responsible in helping these majestic creatures back into their rightful domain.

The vigor of each group’s rallying cry was intense. That was expected.

But what was unexpected was how successful the reintroduction would be. And as the reintroduction’s success grew, so did the passion of each group.

But before we can understand where we are today, we need to remember where we came from…

Read the entire article on The Fall, Rise & Management of Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

After reading the editorial, and receiving an email from Perry, HOWLColorado has decided to write a response.

Perry Rosenbloom’s Op-Ed which appeared on the Glacier National Park Travel Guide web site tries hard to walk the line of being balanced, and for that he deserves credit.

We feel some of the characterizations were a little misrepresentative of “conservationists” and “nature lovers.” The claim that these “starry-eyed” individuals and groups which haven’t even seen a coyote let alone a wolf serves to undermine the points those people may be making. And it also ignores the voices of wolf advocates who have not just seen wolves, but work with and study wolves.

The facts he states are generally speaking reasonably accurate.

Canis lupus irremotus

Canis lupus irremotus (the subspecies that roamed the northern Rocky Mountains) was one of the major reasons that the Nixon administration signed the Endangered Species Act in to law and this wolf was one of the very first animals placed on the Endangered Species List.

Canis lupus irremotus was believed to be extinct shortly thereafter – though opponents of the reintroduction argued that sporadic possible sightings indicated an existing population in the region.

Rosenbloom’s synopsis of the issues related to no wolves in the area is true. The coyote population exploded, demolishing the lower part of the food chain and no apex predator existed to control them. The elk population similarly exploded and the vegetation was ravaged.

If you find this hard to believe, just look at Colorado today. The same issues continue to exist where elk run relatively uncontrolled. The answer is to extend hunting. We will get to hunting here soon enough.

The wolf reintroduction occurred in 1994. The wolves introduced were from a health population of canis lupus occidentalis. Advances in the field of wolf biology had determined that while 24 or more subspecies were thought to exist in the North American continent, the actual number was much lower. Indeed, it is probably as low as six. Why is this important?

Irremotus was determined to be one of those subspecies. The new classification meant that they were much more likely to be canis lupus nubilus. This subspecies was also thought to be extinct, but scientists found a small pocket in the upper Midwest, making their homes in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. It is worth noting that these states have recently held their first wolf hunts or approved future hunts.

Canis lupus nubilus was not a healthy enough population to pull for reintroduction to the northern Rocky Mountains.

This is the source of the anti-wolf rhetoric about an “invasive Canadian wolf.” The claim is that they are more aggressive and larger. We will get to that soon too.

The reintroduction

The reintroduction was conducted under 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act. This means that the population was “experimental.”

The states involved: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, were told they would need to maintain a minimum population of 10 breed pairs.

This is the source of the “promise” that anti-wolf rhetoric uses that there would be no more than 100 wolves per state.

Note the very specific difference that they chose to ignore. The minimum was put in place in order to facilitate the goal of maintaining a health wolf population for at least 100 years. The current wolf science suggests the minimum will actually be closer to 3,000 wolves for the region, but that is obviously not what the states want to hear – so they are holding on to the initial minimum like a safety blanket. Science isn’t a … perfect science… and one of the basic tenets of science is that you constantly test the assumptions and adjust based on the results. The best science of today should be used to determine the future of wolves – even if politics and financial interests might prefer to stick with the old science.

Why 3,000 wolves you may wonder.

Genetic diversity is the primary concern. Wolves disperse. The omega wolf is forced to leave a pack, travels miles and establish a new pack with those dispersing from another pack.

Isle Royale shows what happens when any population is prevented from getting new genetic material.

This need for genetic intermingling is essential if the wolf population of the Northern Rocky Mountains is to exist, healthy in to the extended future.

The fallacy of hunt-based management

Rosenbloom’s observations related to the problems of hunting are well made. The key word placed here is the term “indiscriminate.”

Trapping is incredibly indiscriminate. 74% of Americans are opposed to trapping. It is a cruel practice which leads to the death and maiming of many “non-target” animals including many domesticated animals. There is no reasonable justification for trapping – outside of the fact that it’s easy and requires no effort.

Hunting is similarly indiscriminate.

It would be hypocritical to criticize a human being for hunting for their food and yet be a staunch supporter of wolves. We are therefore not anti-hunting. I personally would not hunt, and don’t actually eat anything that requires hunting, but I do feel that ethical, subsistence hunting is a part of American life that isn’t going anywhere and is not a target of our efforts.

Trophy hunting is a different matter.

Better animals make better trophies.

Whereas predators seek weaker, young or old targets, human hunters seek out the best of the best when they can. The biggest, healthiest bull elk, the biggest, healthiest looking wolf. There is pride in killing the largest animal. Indeed contests are held based on that criteria. So important is it that you acquire the biggest kill that it leads to some severe exaggerations. The number of people who have told me their friend killed a 200lb wolf is shockingly high. And completely fictional.

It’s interesting how many of these stories are anecdotal.

The easier the kill the better.

Yellowstone National Park represented an easy place to find wolves. Trophy hunters know this. Many wolves this year were killed just outside the borders of the park. Wolves don’t know where it’s safe and where it’s not. And many scientifically important wolves were killed – indiscriminately.

Wolf advocates called for a buffer zone to be set up around the park to protect these wolves. Montana FWP actually did this, but were court-ordered to stop… science controls wolf management? I don’t think so.

Killing the alpha wolf is, as Rosenbloom notes, devastating to the pack. The pack adjusts but does so with unprepared, inexperienced wolves taking the lead.

200 lb wolves, oh my!

There are these claims, but sadly for the anti-wolf talking points based on this, we do have a fairly significant sample size of wolves from the northern Rocky Mountain population. In the 2009 Idaho wolf hunt close to 200 wolves died, and only one was over 100lbs.

A bitter “silver lining” I suppose.

The claim of the massive “Canadian” wolf was similarly disproved by these findings. The truth is that wolves adapt to their environment and availability of prey. After generations, these wolves have become very similar in size and behavior to the wolves they replaced.

Wolves kill livestock

Which is true, but they prefer not to. Often young, desperate wolves find unprotected livestock and return regularly after discovering an easy source of food. But a study in the upper Midwest found only 3 percent of wolves had domestic livestock in their stomachs. They really do prefer elk and deer.

Wolves are also second to the bottom of the list for all causes of livestock death. Only bears kill less livestock, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Predator causes of death are significantly lower than health/environmental causes, but domestic dogs, coyotes, vultures and others come in significantly above wolves. And apparently people steal cattle.

Some precautions taken by ranchers have reduced their wolf predation to zero – so it’s worth noting that wolves are relatively easily deterred.

It’s also interesting to note that there are some discrepancies between state-based wolf predation numbers and national wolf predation numbers for the same region.

Some attribute this difference to the fact that livestock owners are only compensated for losses caused by wolves. One rancher, seeking to receive compensation for a cattle death, reported the kill to Defenders of Wildlife. They saw signs of wolf bites on the carcass and agreed, wolves were likely to blame. They loaded the cow on to a flatbed, its head tilts over and there is a bullet hole. It’s one confirmed case, and perhaps it was isolated. But perhaps not.

To manage or not to manage

Obviously most wolf advocates aren’t so naïve as to think that wolves won’t be killed. The problem is that we can’t really trust anyone at this point to use only science and common sense to determine the correct number of wolves or the best way to manage the numbers.

You could argue that the federal government is the best for the job, and in recent years, it has been my experience that the officials involved are often actually in it for the right reasons, but unfortunately, Wildlife Services is the same division which exterminated all wolves in the first place. They report to the USDA and as such their motives are certain subject to question.

The states are clearly incapable of coming up with realistic wolf management plans. Even Montana, where some amount of sanity appears to lie behind the decisions, the special interests and politicians are quick to sacrifice wolves for some level of personal benefit. Red-state democrats are often the weakest on holding their ground and Jon Tester was the man who snuck the rider in to an appropriations bill that delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho and prevented judicial review.

Idaho governor “Butch” Otter has stated publicly that he would like the state to reach the minimum possible level needed to prevent the Feds to take over wolf management again.

Wyoming’s management plan is disturbingly poor.

As wolf populations grow and dispersion occurs, each state will have to face the challenges of dealing with the political and special interest minefield of wolf management. It seems the last criteria being used right now is science. Reasonable management will upset all sides and ensure that wolves are a healthy, genetically diverse part of the American ecosystem for centuries to come.

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