By Mike Koshmrl
A Native American advocacy group is asking for a ban on killing wolves along a wide swath of land bordering Yellowstone National Park.
A request sent to the Wyoming Fish and Game Department seeks a temporary suspension of wolf hunting altogether and a 31-mile no-hunting “sacred resource protection safety zone” along the outskirts of the 2.2 million-acre park. Protect the Wolves Director Roger Dobson said that Wyoming’s insistence on eliminating Canis lupus from most of the state was a motivation for approaching the state.
“It goes to show that Wyoming is not capable of managing their resources in the best interest of the public,” said Dobson, a member of the Pacific Northwest’s Cowlitz Indian Tribe. “They’re mandated under the Indian trust and public trust to manage our resources in the best interest of the public. It’s further mandated that they do not allow special-interest groups to suggest or affect policy change.”
Dobson’s contention is that Wyoming’s wolf management plan and its unique anything-goes predator zone was a direct concession to the livestock lobby that stands to benefit, and thus an illegal betrayal of the public trust.
The Public Trust Doctrine, of Roman civil law provenance, holds that publicly owned resources like wildlife are entrusted to the government to be responsibly managed on behalf of the people. The doctrine is a seldom-used tool in natural resource litigation, at least compared to more contemporary environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
Protect the Wolves is an unlikely group to jump into Wyoming wolf management, a subject of long-running debate between conservationists and federal and state wildlife managers. The group, just recently incorporated as a 501(c)(4) organization, has no staff in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Dobson said he has 54,000 members and “tribal endorsements” all over North America.
An appeals court’s March decision once again turned wolves into a Wyoming-managed species, following a 2 1/2-year stint as a federally protected threatened species. Once the court order took effect wolves in Wyoming’s predator zone went immediately from being off-limits to animals that could be killed indiscriminately and without limit.
Game and Fish has begun planning for a fall hunt in the managed portion of the state, called the “trophy game area.” The intent of the hunt is to drop the wolf population in the that area by 50 to 160 animals, the lowest level possible that ensures there will be legally adequate numbers of breeding pairs.
A meeting on the wolf hunting regulations is scheduled for 6 p.m. May 22 at The Virginian Lodge.
Need to redraw hunt area lines
It’s through the season-setting process that Dobson seeks to amend the wolf-hunting regulations. The request would require redrawing the lines on hunt units that have been in place for years.
Renny MacKay, Game and Fish’s statewide spokesman, said that a no-hunting buffer along Yellowstone’s periphery is not in the plans at this time.
“I think people could give us feedback on that,” MacKay said, “but I don’t know if that could be done at this point.”
As it’s drawn up today Wyoming has four wolf hunting units that directly border Yellowstone. Collectively, draft quotas for those areas would allow 13 wolves to be killed. Additional hunting of the large carnivore, reintroduced to the region in 1995-96, takes place on the Montana and Idaho boundaries of the park.
Although it includes 85 percent of the state, none of Wyoming’s wolf-predator zones are located within 30 miles of Yellowstone. If it were to be adopted, a 30-mile Yellowstone buffer would mean wolves would be safeguarded from hunting as far south as Ditch Creek and on the west slope of the Tetons as far south as Darby Canyon.
The only Native American territory in Wyoming’s portion of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Wind River Indian Reservation, is more than 30 miles from the park boundary.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2017 census found nine wolves on the reservation, where the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes — not Game and Fish — have jurisdiction over the species. Members of the tribal councils could not be reached by press time.
Yellowstone officials, like Dobson and Protect the Wolves, historically have advocated reduced wolf hunting near park borders.
In 2012, when cross-border hunts took place in all three adjoining states, 15 wolves that ventured into Yellowstone that year were legally killed in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming hunts. In subsequent years the tally has been lower, but hunting-related mortality has continued to play a role in Yellowstone wolf pack dynamics — and affected the visitor experience. A 2016 study found that trapping and hunting on the outskirts of Denali and Yellowstone national parks reduced wolf sightings by up to 45 percent.
MacKay said that Wyoming is trying to establish responsible hunting quotas “everywhere,” including along the park boundaries.
“The quotas that we’ve put in the draft regulations are based on factors on the ground out there,” he said.
Since federal managers assumed control of Wyoming’s wolves and hunting ceased in 2014, the statewide population grew from about 300 animals to around 380, the highest since reintroduction. Conflicts with livestock have increased, and wolves likely shed more cattle and sheep blood in 2016 than at any time since before they were extirpated a century ago.
Probably bound for the ‘round file’
Dobson was skeptical that his call for a wolf-safety zone around Yellowstone would have much traction with the state.
“They’ll probably just throw it right in the round file,” he said. “I’d be shocked if they even gave it consideration.”
But the Cowlitz tribal member, who spoke over the phone from California, vowed to be persistent and to spread the petition to tribes around the United States. He said he was confident the science and the public sentiment were on his side.
“They really need to stop crying that ‘the wolves are killing all our animals,’” Dobson said. “Every single year goes by and their elk slaughter counts increase. They need to stop spreading those falsehoods. They’re fabricated stories. Facts are facts.”
If the appeal fails, Dobson said he won’t rule out suing the state of Wyoming using a Public Trust Doctrine argument. He has vetted the argument with environmental attorneys, he said, and has been in contact with litigation-happy advocacy groups like the Western Watersheds Project.
Jonathan Ratner, the project’s Wyoming, Utah and Colorado director, is eager to explore use of the Public Trust Doctrine in natural resource disputes, saying it has “great potential.” But he was most keen on applying the legal strategy to Wyoming elk feedgrounds rather than wolf management.
“That fits into the Public Trust Doctrine, absolutely,” Ratner said. “Fifteen years ago chronic wasting disease was far enough away where you could wait, but we don’t have any time left to sit around.
“Game and Fish … is putting the elk feedlots ahead of their obvious and clear duties to protect public wildlife,” he said. “Everybody in Game and Fish knows that feeding wildlife is a bad thing — they even make pamphlets saying it. While they’re telling people ‘don’t feed the wildlife,’ they’re basically the only ones feeding the wildlife.”