A recent opinion piece by Mike Medberry wisely suggested that there needs to be a reasonable middle ground in the deeply polemical attitudes toward managing wolves in the West.
Unfortunately, this encouraging argument was followed by much of the same tired, politicized and oversimplified rhetoric, pitting environmental groups against the government and mischaracterizing the premise and background behind the ongoing legal actions.
The truth is that the restoration of a viable wolf population to the West could be “the most successful program ever accomplished under the Endangered Species Act [ESA]” – but we still have a little ways to go. And, as much as we’d love to, given our decades of time, money and energy on this recovery effort, we cannot declare victory until the criteria of the ESA are met.
For the delisting to be legal, the states must have legally binding responsible management plans in place; the federal delisting rule must ensure for a sustainable wolf population with genetic dispersal among core populations; and all of the region’s wolves (including Wyoming’s wolves) must be included in the legal definition of the regional population.
These commonsense biological premises have always been the foundation of our goals for the delisting of wolves. That’s why conservation groups went to court last year, and why we’re in court again this year: These goals have yet to be met.
The lawsuit (pdf) has nothing to do with this season’s hunt; although it would logically follow that if the rule by which the hunt is permitted is illegal and premature, the hunt is also illegal and premature.
The federal delisting rule still allows for the regional population of approximately 1,650 wolves to be reduced to a completely unsustainable 450 wolves. That number is one of the minimum recovery goals set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before wolves were reintroduced – but it was never intended as the gold standard for a healthy wolf population. It was an educated guess at a time when no one fully knew what to expect from the reintroduction. Since then, our scientific understanding has evolved, and we now know that connectivity across the population, and sustainable state management, are at least as important as the number of wolves (contrary to the common misperception that all it takes to remove ESA protections from a species is sheer numbers).
Meanwhile, Idaho’s state legislature is still on record as wanting to remove all wolves by “any means necessary,” and Wyoming has yet to develop any semblance of a reasonable management plan for wolves.
Our first line of recourse, before litigation, was to ask repeatedly for first Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne’s, and then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s leadership in crafting a science-based wolf delisting plan that would provide for a sustainable wolf population with meaningful input on wolf management from all regional stakeholders. Unfortunately, politics prevailed over leadership in both instances, and we were forced back into court.
As this filters through the judicial system, we continue to pay compensation and assist with implementing nonlethal deterrents to help ranchers co-exist with wolves. Our regional staff continues to work in the field, assisting ranchers with tools that protect livestock from predation by wolves and other native carnivores.
Despite all the misinformation out there, there’s no lack of resources about wolves for those looking for accurate information. For example, even as wolf numbers are rebounding, livestock losses due to wolves still account for less than 1 percent of regional livestock losses. You can compare the statistics yourself by examining the National Agriculture Statistics Services: Cattle losses (pdf), Sheep losses (pdf) and the USDA Wildlife Services records (pdf) in the wolf management reports.
Nor are wolves decimating elk herds. Elk numbers in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are higher today than before wolves were restored to those states. That doesn’t mean that wolves don’t eat elk. They do. But wolves and elk have lived together for thousands of years and are uniquely important for each species’ survival.
Bottom line: Wolves need to be managed and people will likely always disagree on how to manage them. That doesn’t mean that reasonable people can’t find common ground and work together to resolve concerns. Defenders of Wildlife has worked to find common ground with ranchers through our compensation and proactive programs. We continue to stand ready to work with the federal government, the states and other stakeholders to find common ground in crafting a reasonable wolf delisting plan.
It’s time for us to put things in perspective and move forward using the facts and heightened cooperation in order to create a resolution. Adding fuel to the fire of polarizing rhetoric only keeps this issue mired in politics and unsubstantiated blame games.
Erin McCallum is a communications specialist for Defenders of Wildlife.