The states are going along, to varying degrees. Idaho's Legislature took a stand with old-fashioned rhetoric just last year, demanding that all wolves be removed. But the lawmakers managed to choke off their rhetoric enough to pass a wolf management plan in March. It was largely an in-house political process dominated by ranching interests, and it took 18 drafts, with the Idaho Conservation League negotiating specific terms in the final version.

Montana is going through a more open process with relatively little disagreement. Conservationists and ranchers served on an advisory council laying out general principles, including that wolves are a native species that belongs in the state. A draft plan was prepared with scientific input, then public hearings were held and more than 4,000 comments were collected from all over the country.

Montana's draft "looks quite promising," says David Gaillard, of the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance. Still, as Montana develops a final plan later this year with another round of public comment, Predator Conservation wants the state to set a goal of having more wolves than in the draft plan.

Both Idaho's plan and Montana's draft indicate that when each state has 15 verified wolf packs, killing of problem wolves by official action or by ranchers will become even easier. Hunters will probably be allowed to take some. If the population in either state falls below 15 packs, regulations would make it harder to kill wolves and the emphasis would shift toward protection.

The feds would linger in the background for at least five years evaluating progress, with the possibility that Northern Rockies wolves would be put back on the Endangered Species list if necessary.

Dragging its heels and hating any federal idea, even if the idea is for the feds to back off, Wyoming's Game and Fish Commission gave the OK just last month to begin drafting a state plan there, too.

Money is an issue, as usual. The states want everybody else (the federal government) to pay the costs of wolf management, which they estimate at $800,000 per year per state. They also would like the government to set up a well-funded trust to pay for management of wolves and grizzly bears in perpetuity. Yet polls conducted in all three states have shown that a majority of locals supported the wolf recovery effort.

That hasn't stopped local politicians from railing against wolves. In Wyoming's Fremont County, home to several wolf packs, the county commission has passed recent ordinances declaring war on the wolves, raising concerns in the environmental community. "These guys are sending a message to the public that it's OK to eradicate the wolves. I don't have any confidence that without the Endangered Species Act (in effect), wolves will be allowed to survive," says Steve Thomas, a Sierra Club representative based in Sheridan, Wyo. "The state doesn't have the political will to protect wolves."

"Handing the conservation program back to the states would put it right back in the hands of the interests that caused the problems to begin with," warns Bill Snape, chief lawyer for Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington, D.C. "Attitudes can change, but we need to be aware of the risks. We could be taking a giant step backward."

The geography is also questionable. The federal recovery effort for gray wolves set minimum goals for territory in the West, in two distinct pieces: the Northern Rockies and Arizona/New Mexico (where the effort is backing reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves). Even if wolves in the Northern Rockies are taken off the Endangered Species list, the wolves in the Southwest would continue to be protected.

But as wolves spread into other states such as Colorado and Oregon, the feds say they won't be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Defenders of Wildlife believes that wolves in any state should be federally protected until they get established. Otherwise, "we have not allowed wolf recovery to play itself out," says Snape.

"There is no way the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can say its job is done in the West," says Brad Bartlett, a board member of Sinapu, a Colorado group that wants wolves established there. The feds "are required to conserve the species throughout its historic range. Those words are written right into the (Endangered Species) Act."

Hardline wolf advocates are likely to challenge the feds and/or the states with lawsuits over this next phase of wolf management, which makes the future all the more murky.

The wolf recovery program is changing into "a killing program," warns Jon Marvel, head of the Western Watersheds Project based in Hailey, Idaho. The Project already has a lawsuit going against the U.S. Forest Service, charging that wolves should take precedence over livestock grazing in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

The Watersheds Project has proposed using the federal budget to buy out all public lands ranchers in the West. Wolves are one tool in the group's toolbox against ranching. "The issue is much broader," says Marvel. "Why should ranchers be the determinant of public policy on public lands? Livestock are the problem. Wolves are not the problem."

Ninemile wolves may be next

Niemeyer's own career demonstrates the turnabout on wolves. He put in 25 years with a different federal agency, the USDA's Animal Damage Control Agency (now called Wildlife Services, where Williamson works), which is dedicated to controlling predators for ranchers. He helped develop nonlethal methods of controlling wolves, then last year signed on with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help run the wolf recovery. He says the job of finishing off the Whitehawk Pack gave him no pleasure, but that as a society, we're no longer in "the warm and fuzzy stage" of wolf recovery.

Before the Whitehawk Pack occupied the territory around and in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, two other packs had tried to live there, and those wolves also were either relocated or killed due to conflicts with livestock. More wolves are bound to move into that piece of habitat, and the same scenario may play out again and again.

Or, another famous wolf pack may be killed off in Montana's Ninemile Valley, northwest of Missoula. The wolves there were featured in a nonfiction book by well-known writer Rick Bass in 1993. They're also the wolves that are killing pet llamas now, and already this year the feds have killed four in the pack.

"Wolves can live anywhere we allow them to live," Niemeyer says. "The whole wolf-management business is a social issue, not a biological issue."

Niemeyer hopes for the day when anything that happens to a wild wolf won't automatically turn into a news headline. The government assigns a number to each wolf, and "we strongly discourage people from naming these wolves. Then it's like killing Fifi or Fluffy," Niemeyer says. "That complicates it." The alpha female that led the Whitehawk Pack was "an extremely pretty animal, uniquely white," he says, but he thinks it's too bad that some wolf lovers named her Alabaster.

Jon Marvel is among those who believe wolf management has gone way too far. Any wolf that has a number or a radio collar or a name, "it's not even a wolf anymore," he says. "It's a recipe for destroying wildness. It's a semi-domesticated animal. We might as well call it livestock."

But Niemeyer keeps coming back to the basic goal, saying everyone should focus on "all the wolves we've saved." He hopes the level of rhetoric will continue to drop. "We've got to get away from the name-calling and get the humanity back in this business."

 

Ray Ring is Northern Rockies editor for High Country News.

Rocky Barker, who covers the environment for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, contributed to this story.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a central archive on wolf recovery, www.r6.fws.gov/wolf, or contact Ed Bangs, in Helena, Mont., 406/449-5225, ext. 204, or ed_bangs@fws.gov;
  • Defenders of Wildlife, Suzanne Laverty, Boise, Idaho, 208/424-9385;
  • National Wildlife Federation, Tom France, Missoula, Mont., 406/721-6705;
  • Western Watersheds Project, Jon Marvel, Hailey, Idaho, 208/788-2290, www.westernwatersheds.org;
  • Wolf Recovery Foundation, Ralph Maughan, www.forwolves.org, exec@forwolves.org.

For more on the wolf story, tune in to Radio High Country News on our Web site, www.hcn.org.