By Jessica L. Flammang
In the pre-dawn hours of a frigid November morning, Heather Hart’s* grandfather awoke to discover another bloody carcass in his pasture. Wolves had devoured a dependable four-year-old cow that he affectionately called Sadie, the night before. And this was not the first time.
With a heavy heart, he donned thick gloves and a shovel to scoop her remains from the ground. He mourned not only for the animal, but also for her unborn calf and for his own family, which was depending on the income from the sale of the calf in the spring.
Hart’s family founded much of the west side of Teton Valley, Idaho, just over the border from Wyoming, raising cattle on the land for six generations. This year, the Harts lost three cows to wolves.
“The carcasses were carved out from the bottom of the animal,” said Hart. “It was a really tough loss because we depend on our livestock for our livelihood.”
Hart and her husband hold wolf hunting tags, but did not kill a wolf between October 1 and December 31, 2017, the first year since 2013 that wolves have been open for hunt.
“Fish and Game doesn’t give out tags unless wolves need to get shot,” she said. “We don’t go out and hunt for wolves, but if we see one while hunting elk or deer, we will shoot it.”
Reluctant to use her real name for fear of community backlash and ongoing threats to wolf hunters in the area, Hart said that her family can get $100 to $200 for a wolf skin, but when one cow is lost to a predatory wolf, they lose up to $5,000.
In April 2017, federal officials removed wolves from the endangered species list, and turned over population management to the state of Wyoming. In the northwest section of the state, the gray wolf — also known as the timber wolf, or western wolf — is designated as a trophy game animal, but in the remaining majority of Wyoming, the wolf is considered a predatory animal. Conservationists cringe knowing that in predatory zones, the sacred creature is considered ‘vermin.’
Few hunters are willing to offer their real identities in the current contentious climate, fueled by long-running legal battles about what to do with this elusive animal, long feared and often misunderstood.
Wolf hunters and state officials alike have suffered unsolicited attacks, threats to burn their houses down, and worse — death threats to their own families, though there is a state statute to protect the identity of hunters and officials responsible for killing wolves.
Under the state’s approved management plan, trophy game hunting is allowed in twelve state managed zones, and open hunting allowed in predatory zones, not managed by the state. This means wolves can be shot on sight without a hunting license at any time of year. Wolf hunting is a significant contributor to meeting state quotas for population control, and is tinged with public disdain.
Wyoming residents wonder if wolves should be managed by the state or remain protected federally. Many question how wolves can be hunted legally just months after their removal from the endangered species list.
Hunters, ranchers, Game and Fish wardens, biologists, and wildlife management coordinators are at the heart of the management issue, committed to keeping wolves on the Wyoming landscape.
Many conservationists believe federal management would continue to protect the gray wolf. Others, including wildlife professionals, are confident that the state-run plan is working and will ensure wolves’ survival in Wyoming.
The dispute remains deeply polarized.
“It’s a heated topic, and a symbolic battle,” said Ken Mills, lead wolf biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish. “Nobody hates wolves. Both sides of the issue are fraught with misconception.”
Federal vs. State Management
In the 1930s, bounty hunters decimated the wolf population in the continental United States. The predators essentially vanished from the landscape, and were subsequently protected by the Endangered Species Act, written into law by President Nixon in 1973. Wolves were one of the first species to benefit from this protective measure and were listed as endangered the following year in the lower 48 states, according to the Earthjustice website, a nonprofit environmental law organization that lobbies for wildlife.
After years of federal protection, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reintroduced endangered grey wolves to the state of Wyoming in 1995 in Yellowstone National Park and in Central Idaho. They quickly spread throughout the Northern Rockies in the tri-state area of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
In 2003, wolf classification was formally changed from endangered to threatened.
“As a requirement for delisting, states with wolf populations had to enact laws and management plans to ensure continued survival of the species,” reads the Earthjustice timeline, paving the way for Wyoming’s state management plan of the Northern Rocky Gray Wolf.
In 2012, wolves were delisted in Wyoming, returning to state management, but federal protection was subsequently restored just two years later in 2014. Wolves in Wyoming stayed on the endangered species list again from September 2014 until April of 2017. During that time, they were protected under federal law.
The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in March of 2017, and Wyoming’s 2012 state-run management plan was finally approved.
Wyoming Game and Fish now manages wolves subject to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission approved wolf management plan, written by biologists.
Some believe wolves now face a new kind of endangerment under state management, leaving them easy prey to hunters and even poachers. Earthjustice lawyers have referred to the state’s plan as both “hostile and extreme.”
Under the management plan, the state of Wyoming maintains a healthy wolf population of up to 100 wolves, including ten breeding pairs, along with a buffer of five more breeding pairs. A total known population of 380 wolves existed in Wyoming at the end of 2016, according to Mills.
State law delineates separate zones for trophy game hunting and for areas where the wolf is considered predatory. In the northwest section of the state, the gray wolf is designated as a trophy game animal. Wolves now located outside of the Trophy Game Management Area [TGMA] are considered predatory and therefore can be openly harvested with no quotas. This includes nearly 75 percent of the state. While these zones are not managed by Fish & Game, harvests must be reported within ten days.
Wolves remain protected within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and the Wind River Reservation.
This past year, the first federally approved and state managed hunting season in Wyoming since 2013, the mortality rate rung in at 77.
In trophy hunting areas, 44 wolves were killed, meeting the state-set quota. Several hunting zones were subsequently closed before the season ended. An additional 33 wolves were shot in predatory zones outside of state-managed areas, where Game and Fish has no jurisdiction.
Public Disdain & Misconceptions
Community conflict over how to handle the wolves has become hostile.
“I have gotten death threats on myself and my family for doing my job,” said Dan Thompson, Large Carnivore Section Supervisor at Wyoming Game and Fish. “Without an understanding of the intricacies of wildlife conservation, there is a misconception that nothing should die.”
The Lander-based official is uneasy about the level of public disdain.
“There is a huge lack of trust in government authority right now, and that transfers to Game and Fish,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, divisiveness doesn’t help overall discussions.”
Hot-blooded public comments have taken their toll on state officials as well as hunters.
A public comment posted in response to a Jackson Hole News & Guide article reporting that twelve wolves had been shot within the first forty hours of the hunting season in October reads: “Killing wolves for sport where hatred masquerades as wildlife management shows our lack of values. It is amazing to me how and why we would let the very bottom of the barrel in the hunting community to persecute these wolves.”
Another person attacked the state.
“Wyoming, I have been to your state to see the wolves and other wildlife many times. I will no longer be spending any money in your State of DEATH! … it has become a state of BLOODTHIRSTY KILLING people that kill and torture wildlife for their own sick pleasures and you allow it! Wildlife deserves better; wolves deserve better.”
But state officials disagree.
“We are not negatively endangering wolves. We are not threatening long-term reliability,” Thompson said. “Our management plan is science based.”
“People don’t understand why we would call wolves ‘trophy game’ and ‘predatory animals,’” Mills said. “That is the framework that the state legislature set up. They define what big game and trophy game animals are, and how those animals will be treated. We don’t have a choice. We are dealing with statutory definitions.”
Eighty to ninety percent of the known wolf population now inhabits the state’s trophy game zones, according to Thompson.
“The dual status classification is set in state statute,” Thompson said. “The northwest part of the state is designated because it is most suitable for wolves, and there is less potential conflict with humans.”
“When we brought wolves back, we looked at ways to reduce conflict on the land. People called us with wolves on their land, and we were powerless,” Thompson said. “We had to respond that we couldn’t do anything. Now we are using hunting proactively reduce adverse impact on big game and livestock.”
The state previously managed the animals from 2012 to 2014, but a judge mandated a return to the endangered list in September of 2014 due to language around the state’s commitment to protect them.
“They were relisted based on a judge’s ruling regarding verbiage in management plan,” Thompson said. “There was no threat to the population. She affirmed that they were biologically recovered.”
Original recovery goals cited 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves.
“This was then subdivided into three states — Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho — claiming ten breeding pairs in each state,” Mills said.
“In preparation for delisting, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said they needed a buffer in the northern Rockies,” Mills said. “And what they packed on was a 50 percent buffer, adding another 15 breeding pairs, and 150 wolves to make it 450 spread among the three states.
Under the management plan, the state of Wyoming maintains a healthy wolf population of up to 100 wolves, including ten breeding pairs, along with a buffer of five more breeding pairs.
At the federal level, Fish and Wildlife appealed the decision to delist the wolves, but a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel determined that the state management plan was sufficient.
“It’s the only time Fish and Wildlife had a court case related to wolves,” Mills said.
On April 25, 2017, wolves were returned to the state for population control.
“The state is fully committed to maintaining 15 breeding pairs, and it is working,” Mills said.
“It’s important for people to know that just because they are delisted, protections have not been stripped,” Thompson said. “They were delisted because they met recovery criteria. We still have to maintain those criteria.”
Born & Raised to be a Cowboy
Cache Crane was born and raised in the Tetons. His father, the late Fred S. Crane Jr., a beloved long time Jackson Hole Rodeo announcer, brought him to the Jackson rodeo for the 4th of July festivities when he was only one day old. Crane was a student in Kelly, Wyoming, when wolves were reintroduced to the wild in Wyoming in 1995. He remembers going to see them in cages on a field trip just before they were first released.
“I was raised to be a cowboy,” he said. “And with that comes hunting and fishing. For cowboys, ranchers and farmers, cattle are their livelihood. It’s survival. We need to protect our lifestyle.”
Crane trains performance horses and owns an equine dentistry business.
He also holds a wolf tag, for which he paid an $18 fee in 2017, and a mountain lion tag, both of which he has already filled. In 2017, approximately 2,500 wolf tags were issued. As of January 2018, a tag costs $21 for residents, and $187 for non-residents.
Crane believes that wolf hunting is central to population control and that he is working in concert with the state.
“What we do is wildlife management. If we didn’t do it, wolves would be out of control,” he said. “It wouldn’t take long before things would go missing. They will come in and kill all your hounds real quick.”
Crane feels that he and other hunters are a great help to ranchers and farmers in rural Wyoming and Idaho.
“It’s horrific and detrimental to the ranchers and farmers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem what the wolves are capable of,” Crane said. “When a wolf kills a cow, it kills the calf it is carrying, and other cows will abort the cows they might be carrying because they know there is a wolf around. Right there, a rancher loses a lot more than one cow.”
“One reason hunters are necessary is that nothing can kill the wolves in the wild. Grizzlies can’t kill them. Gray wolves are 80-150 pounds,” he said. “Six of them together can do incredible damage. They teach their pups to kill, and not because they are hungry.”
All ecosystems hold their balance, and Crane’s generational skills hold an important niche. “Wolves are predators. And therein is a need for predator hunters,” Crane said. “We hunt coyotes, wolves and mountain lions. Sometimes we get phone calls from people who have lost dogs and cats, pleading for our help. Anybody would be upset to see their house cat hanging from a predator’s mouth.”
“We are stigmatized by liberal media as hillbilly assholes who want to slay everything we see,” he said.
While Crane believes in population control, he said that “no one is out there to make wolves extinct again. I think everyone agrees that wolves need to be managed.”
Crane is studying for a trapper’s permit.
“It’s not like we are uneducated on how to humanely do what we do. We all have mentors. Our grandfathers trapped the wolves here,” he said.
“You don’t just move to the Tetons and decide you want to be Jim Bridger. It’s something that you learn over time,” he said. “You pick someone’s brain who has forgotten more than you will ever know. That’s how things get passed down through generations. We hold it close to our heart.”
Crane feels that perspectives differ greatly due to lifestyle choices.
“A lot of people denouncing wolf hunting are people who don’t understand the way of life,” said Crane.
“People who don’t think there is a need for hunters could have a rude awakening. If wolves run out of food, they will come down into the town of Jackson,” he said. “They are not stupid. First it’s dogs and cats, then it could be their kids.”
“People underestimate what wolves are really capable of. They don’t know about the livestock and big game riddled with parasites from wolves. They think they can go to Yellowstone and feed them and pet them,” he said.
“If you live here, you are going to see a dead elk in the back of a truck,” he said. “If people see a dead wolf, they don’t agree with it, and it gets publicized, like that one we drove through Jackson. Many think that as hunters, we are heartless murderers thirsty for blood.”
“A lot of people against wolf hunting don’t live in rural areas. If they ever walked up on a calf with its heart half-eaten, they wouldn’t appreciate the sight.”
But killing a wolf doesn’t come easy. “Wolves used to be cocky; now you can’t find them,” said Crane. “When their packs began diminishing, they understood that people were something they didn’t want to be around.”
Wolves are ridden with parasites and not taken for their meat.
“I take mine to the taxidermist and get them mounted,” Crane said. “You are honoring the animal by keeping it around as it was,” said Crane. The cost of mounting one can be upwards of $3,000.
Wolves vs. Humans
Five subspecies of gray wolves now inhabit North America again, their colors ranging from pure white to brown, gray, cinnamon and even black.
“The carnivores travel in packs of four to seven, and are led by alphas — the mother and father wolves that track, hunt and choose dens for the pups or younger subordinate wolves,” according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.
Since wolf pups are born blind and deaf, they require significant care until they mature around ten months of age. Pairs often mate for life. Wolves typically roam and hunt within territories, ranging from 50 to 1,000 square miles. According to the International Wolf Center, they can travel up to 50 miles a day searching for food.
“What drives their size is the prey they are eating,” Mills said. “Wolves that eat bison or moose are generally larger than wolves that eat deer, for example. Larger wolves do better and reproduce better. On average, wolves have gone from 100 pounds to 110.”
But as wolf territory overlaps more and more with humans, conflicts are more common.
“Once the world’s most widely distributed mammal, the gray wolf’s range has been reduced by one-third,” according to WWF.
In 2016, eleven of the Pinnacle Peak wolf pack had to be euthanized by Wyoming Game & Fish managers along Spring Gulch road in Jackson.
“If left unfettered, wolves would increase in size and distribution, as we have seen,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, we can’t go back in time. Landscape has evolved. Humans are part of the ecosystem now.”
“Our goal is to try to make things work. We are not going to promote wolves in areas where they will kill livestock and pets,” he said.
Mills says Wyoming’s approach is purely responsive. “State management is reactive,” he said. “Hunting brings down 25-30 percent in trophy game areas where we have concerns with high density wolf populations.”
“The state’s annual wolf numbers reveal an enduring healthy population — approximately 377 wolves in 52 packs with 25 breeding pairs,” according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife in April of 2017. “The Northern Rocky Mountain population as a whole continues to be self-sustaining, with numbers well above federal management objectives.”
Red-Handed in the Wild
With most new plans come new problems. Wyoming Fish and Game Warden Jon Stephens caught Clinton Blake of Rock Springs red-handed on December 5th with a wolf carcass stuffed into a bin in his trunk.
Blake had been hunting in an area closed to hunters on the south side of the Gros Ventre River.
He paid a fee of $1,290 to Teton County after fessing up to his slip-up. He didn’t lose his hunting license. The north side of the Gros Ventre River remained open to hunters that day.
“It’s good for those people to get caught, and show others that there are ramifications for their actions,” Mills said. “ If he poaches again, there will be further implications in the future.”
Thompson, a hunter himself, agreed.
“Hunters are extreme conservationists,” he said. “We take any illegal killing of wildlife extremely personally. Hunters are how we found out about the illegal killing.”
“In order to have an apex predator on the landscape, we have to be able to manage conflicts and look at the bigger picture,” he said. “Our goal is not to kill every wolf in the state. The overarching objective is to maintain the animals on the landscape.”
Feared. Beloved. Sacred. Wild. The big, bad wolf.
Wolves have frequented fairy tales to epic poetry, biblical and classical literature. Often portrayed as a threat, and even a devilish figure, wolves permeate our cultural literature and traditions.
The animal has become an icon of the wild, and of freedom.
“I don’t think the issue is so much over wolves. It’s about underlying values,” said Thompson. The wolf can be a symbol for something people don’t like.”
“For a lot of folks, it’s the federal government reaching in and doing something they don’t agree with. A lot of the anger is due to the way they were reintroduced and federal overreach.”
“To have wolves under attack means the entire environment is under attack,” he said.
“Wolves are beautiful animals. They have become very symbolic of ecosystems as a whole, and even a symbol of what people think Wyoming is saying.”
Biblical symbolism portrays wolves as the devil figure.
“We are seeing it carried into our culture,” Mills said, referencing early European shepherding and agricultural industry. “Wolves and sheep don’t mix. We carry a lot of history with us,” he said.
In 1890, the English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs widely popularized “The Three Little Pigs and The Big Bad Wolf,” originally penned by author James Hilliwell-Phillips in the 1886 Nursery Rhymes of England.
According to the story, Fifer Pig and Fiddler Pig hastily built their houses, and continued to play their instruments — the flute and the fiddle, all day long. The Big Bad Wolf, on the hunt for a pork chop dinner, blew down Fifer’s straw house, as well as the Fiddler’s house of sticks. They had to seek refuge in their brother’s house — Practical Pig had made his house out of brick.
Although his two brothers had poked fun at him for spending all day building, the Wolf was unable to blow down the sturdy structure. The moral of the story is that hard work is required to protect against impending threats and danger.
In 1933, Ann Ronell and Frank Churchill wrote the famed song “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” for Walt Disney’s animation of ‘Three Little Pigs,” which depicted the creatures as menacing and cunning.
Tourism and Wolf Management
Adam Lackner, owner and operator of Brushbuck Tours, feels that state management policies have adversely affected his business.
“State law that allows less transparency is problematic,” he said.
Wolves are a danger to elk, moose, deer and livestock. On the border of two national parks, this issue is even more complex, as some animals are habituated to coming within 300 feet of tour operations, or venturing into corners of the park that wildlife use for feeding zones.
“In six years of guiding winter wolf viewing trips, we are 100 percent on showing guests wolves,” Lackner said. “When Wyoming opened up hunts, it became so hard to spot wolves that we had to go out at four in the morning to cut tracks before the plows took the fresh tracks off the road. We listened for howls with a bionic ear that amplifies sound just to keep our 100 percent status!”
Depending on pack size, wolves kill an elk or two a week to survive.
“For one pack that’s roughly 50-70 elk or more that aren’t available to hunt,” Lackner said. “Some hunters — like me — hunt an elk every year. We want to see good populations of them around so we keep our freezers full.”
But Lackner realizes that management on some level is ultimately necessary.
“Where livestock production is a main way of life, quotas without question will need to be higher. In Grand Teton and Yellowstone, where tourism and science are a main way of life, quotas should be on a reactionary basis only, taking wolves when they are killing livestock, or have settled in close proximity that will cause human/wolf conflict.”
Lackner stands in fierce opposition to the poaching incident.
“As a hunter, I think hunters should maintain a high standard of ethics. You’re taking an animal’s life, which demands ultimate respect,” he said.
“Take all the meat, and enjoy the fact that we can live somewhat of a subsistence based lifestyle in this area of the US much the way our ancestors did. Hunters need to respect Game and Fish laws as they are set by hunters, for hunters, and use the natural resource without exhausting it. Anybody who poaches should be met with stiff penalties.”
Looking to the Future
“We have a recovered wolf population,” Mills said. “The packs we started last year out with are the packs we ended the year with.”
Mills is a firm believer in the data driven approach.
“From biologists to the Game and Fish commission, data has determined all the decisions,” Mills said. “I trust that will continue into the future. I am proud of Wyoming for that.”
Thompson echoes his optimism.
“I don’t see any long term threats to the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population,” he said.
Though the Hart family, cowboy Crane and other wolf hunters, state officials and wildlife tour guide operators each have their own perspectives on the convoluted conundrum, it’s clear none of them want to see wolves disappear again.
“There is a great deal of passion about wolves, and it’s very polarized. There is hatred and there is idolatry,” said Thompson. “I think we can use the interest to our advantage to keep gray wolves on the landscape.”
***Wyoming Fish & Game’s annual report on wolf population and management will be available to the public in April, 2018.