Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

As darkness blanketed the land, two cunning predators made their move. Their thirst for blood was intense and, when the opportunity presented itself, they sunk their canines into the soft underbelly of their prey. This eager hunting pair--Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)--have doggedly pursued gray wolves all the way to the capitol, where they slyly inserted language removing endangered species protections for the animals in their home states, into the 11th-hour budget bill pending before Congress.

That announcement came just prior to news on Saturday that a federal judge in Montana tossed a proposed settlement between 10 conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) which would have removed protection from gray wolves in Idaho and Montana but allowed for close monitoring of those populations. It was an odd agreement, seeing as how the groups had already won the argument, but the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and others claimed the move was the “lesser of two evils,” hoping that the compromise would sway Tester and Simpson to abandon their personal wolf hunt.

The proposal clearly did little to derail Western lawmakers, and served as a slap in the face to Judge Donald Molloy, who sided with the groups last year and reinstated Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains. In his decision this weekend, he maintained that the court lacks authority to allow state management of a federally-endangered species. “Congress has clearly determined that animals on the ESA must be protected as such,” he said. The court could not “exercise its discretion to allow what Congress forbids.”

Jay Tutchton, an attorney at WildEarth Guardians (who was acting on his own to support the plaintiffs who did not sign onto the failed settlement), was obviously pleased. “The law should not bend to political calculations or practical convenience, especially if that would require the court to trample on the rights of non-settling parties,” he said, “I think the judge's reading of the ESA and the obligations it imposes on him is entirely accurate.”

Tutchton calls the actions of Tester/Simpson “cowardly” because slipping wolves into a ‘must have’ budget bill pre-empts the legislation from being open to full public scrutiny, and from being argued on its own merits. “Sadly, that seems to be how important policy decisions are being made in Congress these days--in closed door negotiations as opposed to public debate,” he says.

It’s not hard to understand why Simpson and Tester--de facto predators in politician’s skin--have been so focused on attacking wolves--they’re locked in a ‘I hate wolves more than you’ battle in the West that may determine whether or not they’re reelected. But, the more I’ve dug to expose the roots of the ‘Kill the wolves!’ vs. ‘Save the wolves!’ fight, the more dubious I’ve become of those who want desperately to do away with wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Conventional arguments become spurious statements when scrutinized in the light of day:

1) Wolves are killing huge numbers of livestock

In Montana, from 1995 to 2007, wolves killed an average 67 livestock animals (cattle, sheep, llamas, goats and horses) per year. Last year, 97 cows/calves were killed, out of 2.5 million head of cattle in the state.

In Idaho, in 2009, wolves killed 90 cows/calves and 344 sheep. The number of sheep seems high, until you consider that sheep producers reported losing 56,000 animals that year for reasons other than predators, such as disease and weather. They also reported losing another 18,800 animals to all predators, mostly coyotes. Eagles were blamed for another 600 sheep deaths. If economics was a real argument, why not target the more destructive hunters--grizzlies, eagles, foxes and coyotes?

Now, I’ve seen a wolf tear out the guts of an animal and it’s not pleasant, but I’ve also seen hamburgers. The loss of a negligent amount of livestock to wolves seems like the price of doing this kind of business.

2) Ranchers’ livelihoods are threatened by wolves

I was surprised to learn that when a wolf kills livestock, ranchers are reimbursed for that take. In 2009, in Montana, ranchers were paid roughly $142,000 for 369 losses to wolves. That money is supposed to be used, in part, to minimize wolf interaction with livestock (better patrolling by humans, guard dogs, electric fences, etc.) but there was little evidence of that.

Besides, where is it written in the constitution that ranchers are entitled to a predator-free environment? Isn’t ranching an inherently risky business? With subsidies and reimbursement, the image of the rough-hewn cowboy is morphing in one of him happily holding hands with the federal government.

3) Ranchers and hunters are worried about elk depredation

The Bureau of Land Management manages livestock grazing on 157 million acres in the west. Ranchers pay a price per head of cattle for that right--$1.35 to be precise, a rate which has held steady over the past 50 years. That’s a lot of public land being chowed down on by domestic animals for a pittance (grazing on private land costs over $19 per head).

Before ranchers and the feds shook hands on grazing domestic animals on public lands, ungulates used to forage there and wolves hunted them. Elk are less likely to graze on land overrun with cows. If ranchers truly cared about the fate of elk, which are on the decline in some parts of the Northern Rocky Mountains (though in recent years their numbers were unsustainably high, according to biologists and annoyingly high, according to some ranchers even), they might think to return some of that land to the wild.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), “In Montana, elk numbers in some areas have declined, due in part to wolf predation. Yet in other areas where wolves and elk interact, elk numbers are stable or increasing. Habitat, weather patterns, human hunting, the presence of other large predators in the same area, and the presence of livestock seasonally or year round are important factors, too."

As for the hunters who’ve been moaning about wolves putting the kibosh on their sport, “One study showed that when wolves are in the local area, elk spend less time in open areas and more time in forested areas. Hunters may need to adjust their strategies,” says FWP. In other words: hunters, man up.

4) Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves have recovered

The total number of wolves (roughly 1,600 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) is perhaps the least important element of so-called recovery. In it’s “Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan,” published in 1987, the FWS defined recovery as maintaining a minimum of 10 breeding pairs of wolves per recovery area (Northwest Montana, Central Idaho and Yellowstone) for three successive years. This benchmark has been reached if breeding partners are combined across the region, but has not yet been reached per recovery area. While the Greater Yellowstone Area has had as many as 31 breeding pairs in past years, that number dropped to six in 2008. The number of breeding pairs in Northwest Montana dropped as low as four in 2003.

Removing ESA protections from wolves while their populations and, more specifically, the number of breeding pairs is in such great flux, would be shortsighted.

After debunking the common arguments for delisting wolves, the question still remains, why are some people so passionate about killing them?

If economics has little to do with it, we’re left with emotion. It helps to look back 100 years, when there was a full-scale campaign to exterminate wolves; they were shot, poisoned, even fed glass. Generations of seemingly austere westerners dedicated themselves to brutally disbanding the aura of myth and fear that surrounded the wolf. (The three little pigs, after all, sang “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and celebrated when their foe burned up in the fireplace.)

But, as a society, we seemed to have turned a corner when the recovery plan was established. At the time, the FWS said, “In the last 40 years, after centuries of fantasy and superstition, wildlife research has yielded a new picture of the wolf as a social creature and an important member of natural ecosystems. Surveys of public attitudes…showed broad support…for protection and conservation of the wolf.”

Yet we now face the most comprehensive plan to extirpate wolves. Have no doubt, this secret legislation sponsored by Tester and Simpson will do a lot of damage -- it will likely allow wolf hunting and prevent courts from reversing Congressional action. The results could be devastating, and all because some politicians and ranchers can’t get over their childish fears.

As Jay Tutchton puts it, “The buck now rests with Obama–does he want to be the one to sign the death warrant for hundreds of wolves (and set back or completely foreclose true wolf recovery)?” A final vote on the budget bill is expected this week.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Apr 12, 2011 11:14 AM
Good to have a mix of opinions on the HCN website. So I'll chime in: I think that while there are some good facts in this column, it's only half the story. Also the headline and some of the writing insult Montana Sen. Jon Tester, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, ranchers, elk hunters and others in the real world who have to deal with wolves.
ralph bartholdt
ralph bartholdt
Apr 12, 2011 11:27 AM
I agree. I don't watch the wolf debate too closely, but I knew in January-February that delisting was part of the latest budget bill.
The reporting here is slanted and dishonest. It doesn't help the debate much. I remember when the wolves were re-introduced; the numbers for recovery goals have been far exceeded. Also, the slap in the face comment re: Judge Molloy is silly. The process moves forward with the best result, sans hand wringing, for all parties involved.
Heather Hansen
Heather Hansen
Apr 12, 2011 11:47 AM
Ray and Ralph, thank you for continuing the conversation, though this is a sad substitute for the public debate that Tester and Simpson are denying us on this issue, with their back-room maneuvers. I consider that an insult to civic-minded westerners. Why would they not pursue this legislation in the light of day? It's not too hard to figure out.

Please weigh in again with the other "half" of the story, as you describe it. The other half, as I see it, is what's slanted and dishonest. But, if there's really something I'm missing, it would be great for HCN readers to see it.
Thanks, again!
andy beres
andy beres
Apr 12, 2011 12:19 PM
The main problem is created by not letting the states manage the wolves just like they manage the rest of their wildlife. The amout of time and money wasted on this problem could have been avoided by eliminating the federal government, special interest groups,and lawyers as soon as the wolves left Yellowstone Park.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Apr 12, 2011 02:21 PM
I agree with Heather--where's the missing "other half"? A different set of numbers? Spinning Tester and Simpson not as wolf haters but as two men whose compassion for cows and sheep spurs them to action? In all the years that this hysteria against wolves has gone on and escalated, it's impossible not to conclude--not just because of the numbers, but because of the particular nature of the rhetoric--that it comes from some really scary (and scared) pathology, an atavistic enmity toward wolves that has no reason behind it at all. I especially agree with her questioning whether it is our duty to provide ranchers with a predator-free environment. I don't have that here in the city. Ranchers are champion whiners. And Simpson and Tester cynical manipulators of the very worst in their constituents' natures.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Apr 12, 2011 02:36 PM
In Tester's defense, and to provide a bit of nuance, he's also been a relatively progressive senator from a fairly conservative state. He's fought for small farmers who are getting screwed by big companies. He's on the side of organic producers and those who are trying to sell direct to consumers and bypass middlemen, and has protected them by amending legislation that might otherwise hurt them. He's tried to craft innovative, collaborative wilderness bills (See Ray Ring's HCN story on the subject, Taking Control of the Machine, at http://www.hcn.org/[…]/taking-control-of-the-machine , and his Ray's blog updates as well. http://www.hcn.org/blogs/ray/a-farmers-wilderness-deal )

Given his constituency, perhaps it is the case that Tester is trying to throw them something here as he gears up for a rough reelection campaign. Would you rather see Rehberg as the junior senator from Montana? He's on the record as saying: "I will fight to delist the grey wolf, fight against the Obama administration's secret plan to take over millions of acres of our state by declaring them a 'national monument.'" He's also vowed to block appointments of any progressive judges in Montana.

So while it isn't at all fair play to attach something like this to a budget bill, it is also an understandable and perhaps even necessary action if Tester wants reelection, given the political climate in his state. Is the wolf listing being sacrificed so the state of Montana might continue to have a more moderate Senator (Tester) in 2012? Perhaps.

--Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor, High Country News
amy snider
amy snider
Apr 12, 2011 02:53 PM
Thank you for working and writing on this issue. I studied the wolves of the west in the lower 48 in a NRM class from an ecosystem management perspective and our professor emphasized the important role of wolves for example, with the aspens and willows trees and shrubs, riparian health and improvements in habitat for beavers and songbirds. I also wrote a research paper on the history of predator control in Alaska and the impacts it has had on the health of flora and fauna. It is a challenge to understand and accept our old and sometimes cherished values. However, it is critical to do so for the health of future generations. "I now suspect that just a deer lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer." -Leopold
Ken Fischman
Ken Fischman
Apr 12, 2011 10:05 PM
Ralph & Rays' comment are interesting in that they illustrate the biggest problem in discussing wolves. They clearly feel that their "comments" should have equal weight with Heather Hansen's carefully researched and documented facts. I wonder what part of the facts they do not understand or even recognize. The new paradigm seems to be that if the facts do not fit your already-formed opinion, you just ignore them & insert your "opinion" as just as valid. I thank Ms Hansen for her efforts but you know what they say about pearls before swine.
phutch 30
phutch 30
Apr 13, 2011 01:48 PM
I live in wolf country and see both sides of the issue on a regular basis. I don’t want to see wolves eliminated but do think we have passed the time that management should have occurred. This was a pretty slanted argument in my opinion. While Heather did correctly state her facts, it was done in such a way as to imply the wolf was in peril. Case in point, breeding pairs. She states wolves in the GYA were at 6 breeding pairs in 2006 and she is correct, but she fails to mention that there has been a steady increase ever since. As of 2010 MT alone had 106 verified packs and 35 breeding pairs. Additionally MT wolves increased by 8% over 2009 which was a 4% increase over 2008 after having a hunting season. Using heathers data (click on the link in #4) it shows the min NWMT wolf population at 171 animals. As of 2010 that min number was at 326 animals, almost double what it was 4 years prior.
I think if she had spent a little more time compiling the most recent population data for this subset of wolves, which is readily available online and maybe not put such a bent to her article this would have been a far better piece.
phutch 30
phutch 30
Apr 13, 2011 01:51 PM
Heather somewhat downplayed the actual level of the wolf/livestock problem. 80% of the 2010 wolf mortalities in MT were directly related to livestock interactions.
Sinati Talini Ni
Sinati Talini Ni
Apr 13, 2011 04:34 PM
I love your comment couldn't have said it any better. Human Predators: "As darkness blanketed the land, two cunning predators made their move. Their thirst for blood was intense and, when the opportunity presented itself, they sunk their canines into the soft underbelly of their prey. This eager hunting pair--Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)--have doggedly pursued gray wolves all the way to the capitol, where they slyly inserted language removing endangered species protections for the animals in their home states, into the 11th-hour budget bill pending before Congress.
Funny that one minute there are NO elk due to wolf predataion but then we read An estimated 95,000 elk populate the greater Yellowstone area in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Experts estimate only a small percentage carry brucellosis. I guess we had to tell lies in order to secure our Vote for 2012

Chip Beiner
Chip Beiner
Apr 14, 2011 11:53 AM
The legislation is not a plan exterminate wolves. It is allowing local state wildlife biologists to manage populations as they would any other species.
Currently there is so much litigation brought by biased political groups that managment is not possible.
None of the states seek to kill all the wolves.
Joe Smith
Joe Smith
Apr 14, 2011 02:39 PM
For having so carefully compiled these facts, I have to wonder why you referenced the FWS report from 2006 rather than, I don't know, the one from 2010? http://www.fws.gov/mountain[…]Table_4a_03-02-11_csime.pdf

You'd be hard pressed to find a biologist (state, federal, or academic, doesn't matter, but someone with biological expertise and training in addition to the Google) who would characterize the NRM wolf population as anything other than recovered. This is a textbook case of how recovery is supposed to work.

While I agree it was very unfortunate for Tester and Simpson to have to go about removing protection in this way, they're just doing their jobs and trying to get reelected. Their constituents have been demanding this for years. A few environmental litigation groups realized that their "no compromise" strategy of indefinitely delaying delisting was going to backfire on them, but it was obviously too late. I think this strategy, and these groups, are somewhat responsible for what happened here, and now we have a rather unfortunate precedent that's not ever going to go away.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Apr 18, 2011 09:58 PM
I'd agree with J Smith. As an ecologist, it's frustrating to see so many folks so wolf crazy. Don’t get me wrong: I like wolves. I remember all the times I’ve seen wolves fondly. But, as Smith says, the wolf situation in the GYE is a textbook recovery. From few wolves in a few highly seperated locations, to many breeding pairs/packs spread across a relatively large and contiguous area is a successful reintroduction any way you slice it. The planned and clearly stated end point for a recovered species in the ESA is removal from the list. The fear that wolves will suddenly be wiped off the landscape is naïve and shows a fundamental lacking of basic wolf biology. Sure it can happen, it has happened; but the circumstances of today’s society is not likely to lead to another wolf near-extirpation. Poison is not being used, nor are wolves being killed with reckless abandon. Instead, coordinated hunting seasons have been instituted in some of the GYE states that allow a take far below a number that would eliminate wolves. Wolf populations can take quite a hit and keep on kicking.

But, on the other side of the coin, there are almost 2000 OTHER SPECIES CURRENTLY ON THE ESA!!! Are you a lover of nature and animals? Here’s a tip: stop being so obstinately convinced of the mis-information that wolves have only the most tenuous of claw holds on survival and move on to the other species in need of federal assistance. Wolves are doing pretty darn well, but a whole ton of other species aren’t. Those guys would probably be pretty happy if all the money wasted on wolf litigation was diverted to their needs.

There were also a few dubious facets of the cattle/livestock issues mentioned in the piece. Sure, only a handful out of many many cows etc., on the landscape are predated on by wolves. Unfortunately wolves (at least here in Alberta) often kill in localized areas. So while in grand scheme of things not too many cattle are lost, if you’re a producer losing 8 cows in a season, that is actually a lot of loss. And that figure so glibly thrown out in the article in regards to compensation (paid roughly $142,000 for 369 losses to wolves)? Tisk tisk! Do the math. That’s $384.83 per lost animal! I know there was no mention of exactly what kinds of livestock were lost and compensated for, but market value of a cow in Alberta is ~$1,500 give or take. $384.83 is a pretty insulting undervaluation for a cow, or for a livelihood. A rancher where I live likes to say that people always forget that ranches and ranchers provide wolf habitat, that Calgary used to be wolf habitat. Or for that matter, Missoula, or Boise, or you name it. If you don’t like meat, don’t eat cows. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water either. There’s a lot of private land that provide a lot of habitat for critters. It’d be a shame to undervalue that land and force it to be sold off to build more houses in order to keep a business afloat…

Good for you to have strong opinions and take the time to write a piece for a media outlet. It’s a lot easier for me to criticize your work then to write something myself. It’d be nice to see some balance to so clearly an unbalanced, and uninformed, article. If science is to drive policy (as it absolutely should), dig into the science (either social or ecological) to back your opinions.