"People freak out, flat-out freak out, when a wolf shows up." That's Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone wolf project, quoted in our story last year ("Prodigal Dogs") about the return of gray wolves to Colorado.
And some people freak out enough to kill roaming wolves, despite the penalty -- up to a $100,000 fine and a year in jail. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just announced that a young female wolf found dead in northern Colorado in spring '09 was poisoned with Compound 1080, a substance banned in 1972 (a few states still use it for predator control under tight regulation). The wolf had wandered 3,000 miles after leaving her Yellowstone pack in September '08. Compound 1080, which causes an agonizing death, has been used in other illegal wolf poisonings, including 9 killed in Idaho in 2001.
Another dead wolf was recently found in Wyoming, southwest of Casper; it's unclear what killed it, though. And conservation groups and FWS are offering a $10,000 reward for information about a 2-year-old male wolf illegally killed this fall in northeast Oregon. In southwestern New Mexico, a female wolf was found shot to death Dec. 2 in Catron County; FWS says they think they know who did it, though. It was the 6th Mexican wolf killed last year under suspicious circumstances.
In 2009, more than 500 gray wolves were killed in the Northern Rockies, between hunting seasons and removals for livestock attacks; at the end of the year the population was around 1,600 (2010 numbers aren't out yet). So far, wolves are proving more resilient to pressure than many had feared.
But one year of hunting does not a trend make, and it's still not clear that the Northern Rockies wolf population contains sufficient genetic diversity for long-term robustness. Nor does the original recovery goal of just 300 wolves across the Northern Rockies states seem scientifically defensible.
The constant see-sawing that tips the predators onto the endangered species list and back off again doesn't help matters either (in August, they were put back on the list). Idaho now refuses to monitor wolves or investigate illegal killings; Montana just filed a federal petition asking that wolves be delisted in the state. Even at the state level, the freak-outs continue.
Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.