Gray wolf’s success ignites new debate
Government begins to reduce protections
By Candus Thomson
Sun National Staff
Originally published November 26, 2003
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. – The sound of success pierces the cold,
still air like a stiletto. Howls of gray wolves announce their dominance
over the food chain from the park’s Lamar Valley to the ranches of
Montana, less than a decade after wildlife biologists returned them to
their traditional habitat.
Bringing wolves back from the brink of extinction is being hailed as an
ecological triumph, so much so that the federal government reclassified
the animal this year from “endangered” to “threatened.” The next step
toward removal from the protected species list is for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to transfer responsibility for wolf management to game
officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, possibly late next year.
“We have achieved biological success. Now we are trying to achieve
bureaucratic success,” said Ed Bangs, federal wolf recovery coordinator.
Each state submitted a management plan, which was reviewed by a panel of
12 independent scientists. Those critiques were sent back to the states
this week and are to be posted on the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Web
site. Another round of public comment will follow before the agency
“Nobody has officially proposed delisting the wolf yet, but even talk gets
people’s blood pressure up,” Bangs said.
The livestock industry and sportsmen’s groups, which have simmered as the
wolf population soared from 31 in the mid-1990s to 750, can’t wait for
return of local control.
On the other side, environmental groups fear that a lack of federal
oversight will mean a return to the “shoot, shovel and shut up” mindset
that nearly caused the wolf’s demise.
“Wolves are an emotionally charged issue, and they have been for
centuries,” said Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for
the National Park Service. “Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood,
Romulus and Remus – the attitudes have been there for years.”
Bangs and Smith have heard all of the arguments. Bangs came from Alaska in
1988 to lay the groundwork for the restoration program. Smith moved to
Yellowstone in 1994 to be part of the restoration program and helped trap
the original 31 animals in Canada and release them at the park.
Scientists also released 35 wolves in central Idaho and were prepared to
transplant a like number each year for five years. But the wolves’
adaptability made that unnecessary.
Last December, biologists announced that for the third consecutive year
the Greater Yellowstone area had 30 breeding pairs, a goal that triggered
the delisting process.
“We had two times as many wolves as we thought we would and half as many
problems as we thought. So it’s a good news, better news story,” Bangs
Not to ranchers in the three states, who have lost 581 sheep and 214
cattle since the reintroduction began.
In newspapers across the region, letters to the editor warn that humans
will be targeted by hungry wolves after they devour all the livestock and
elk. Wildlife experts say that is preposterous and demagogic. During a
legislative hearing this year in Helena, Mont., three dozen speakers
demanded immediate relief from a wolf population they said was out of
Warren Johnson, a sports outfitter from just outside Yellowstone, said he
had waited patiently for a balance between the wolves and the region’s elk
herd, “but there is no balance. Wolves are decimating our wildlife.”
Bangs does not buy the argument: “There are 31,000 mountain lions out West
that eat two times as much livestock as wolves. But no one says we need to
kill all the mountain lions the way we still have people saying we have to
kill all the wolves.”
Former Yellowstone naturalist Gary Ferguson, author of the 1996 book
Yellowstone Wolves, said the hostility toward the recovery program is all
about the perceived meddling of the federal government in local affairs.
“I wonder if there would have been quite the outrage there if the
restoration had happened naturally. I think probably not,” he said.
Biologists consider the wolves “a keystone species” that affects the
health of every other animal in Yellowstone.
When the National Park Service had a strict shoot-on-sight policy for
wolves that eliminated all packs by 1926, “we took the food pyramid and
just lopped off the top,” Smith said. “Wolves are the kings and queens of
providing meat to the scavenger population: grizzly bears, ravens,
magpies, coyotes and eagles. Every wolf kill benefits at least five other
animals, the most we’ve gotten is 10.”
In addition to helping the ecosystem, the wolves also have been a
multimillion-dollar boon to the tourism industry. Outfitters that lead
snowmobile tours and eagle watches have added wolf itineraries. Visitors
with huge spotting scopes take up positions in the Lamar Valley, hoping to
watch wolves stalk elk herds in the winter and raise their pups in the
“Wolves are so much like us,” Bangs said. “We can see ourselves in them -
good and bad – and we project ourselves into them.”
Federal officials say the wolf population is leveling off in the northern
Rockies, where growth rates have slowed from 15 percent last year to 11
percent this year. Yet there are signs that the recovery is breaking new
In September, federal biologists confirmed the existence of a new
16-animal pack, mostly pups, south of Grand Teton National Park in
Wyoming. The sighting is the eighth wolf pack in Wyoming outside
On Nov. 5, a Yellowstone visitor saw a pack in the northeast section of
the park, which marked the 1,000th straight day with a wolf sighting.
But 17 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, do not believe
that success in the park is enough to justify delisting. The groups filed
suit last month against Interior Secretary Gale Norton to stop delisting,
saying that recovery had occurred in just three of nine states in the
Western region. Further, they contended, removing the wolf from federal
protection would curtail recovery elsewhere in the country.
Norton “is backing away from wolf protection before the job is finished
and is jeopardizing all the progress her agency has made so far,” said
Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the 430,000-member Defenders of
Defenders officials point out that since 1987 the group has paid market
value to ranchers who have lost livestock to wolves, more than $210,000.
Bangs believes the federal plan will prevail. “So far we’ve used good
science,” he said. “We’ve followed the law and we’ve won every lawsuit.”
Although the spotlight has been on the wolves in the three northern Rocky
Mountain states, interest – like the packs – has spread.
In the early 1990s, captive red wolves were successfully released in the
Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, which has a
population of about 100 animals.
Officials in Wisconsin, which has more than 300 wolves, held a series of
hearings last week on a management plan that would take effect if the wolf
is removed from federal protection.
The Utah Legislature this year urged game officials to develop a plan
after a migrating wolf from Yellowstone was captured in the northern part
of the state last fall. Although they have not had a sighting yet,
Colorado wildlife managers are working on a similar plan.
And in Maine, New Hampshire and New York, state lawmakers passed bills to
prevent transplanting Quebec wolves to remote areas of their states.
“The polarization is already there,” said Craig McLaughlin of Utah’s
Division of Wildlife Resources, who has been traveling the state taking
comments from residents. “You see the dichotomy between people who make a
living off the land in the southern part of the state who let us know that
they really weren’t interested in having wolves, and the people who live
in the metropolitan area who are much more supportive.”
The Defenders of Wildlife recovery plan calls for restoring gray wolves
throughout their former range where there is suitable prey and habitat to
support several hundred wolves.
But Smith doesn’t think that is realistic. “Wolves don’t belong everywhere
they’ve ever been. They need wild country and we have precious little wild
country left. I’m pro-wolf, but not pro-everywhere.”
Ferguson said if the three state management plans pass muster, it is time
for environmental groups to stop putting up legal roadblocks and allow
delisting to proceed.
“America needs and deserves a success in the restoration story,” he said.
“This is it.”