Still Howling Wolf

Will Westerners finally learn how to live with Canis lupus?

  • CAT URBIKIT, SHEEP RANCHER "Right as darkness started setting in, the wolves started howling on the hill behind the house. So we knew we were about to have problems. It's kind of nerve-wracking to live with wolves. I certainly don't want wolves on our ranch here. Wolves are absolutely not welcome here on our ranch."

    Ted Wood
  • ALBERT SOMMERS, CATTLE RANCHER "Too often natural resource-based decisions are made by judges who don't know siccum about the issues. The difference between grizzly bears and wolves is that bears sleep six months out of the year, and the wolf doesn't. ... I do recognize that he's here now. I recognize that things do change, and that you have to go on forward."

    Ted Wood
  • Rod Merrill, an investigator with the Wildlife Services division of APHIS, inspects a calf belonging to Albert Sommers that was killed by a wolf in the Upper Green River area of Wyoming.

    Ted Wood
  • B.J. HILL, OUTFITTER "I have no use for the critter. At all. Zero. Get it out of here. I feel like we've been lied to. One minute it's 10 packs; now it's 15 packs. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Game and Fish knows that these (elk) calf numbers are plummeting. They know it."

    Ted Wood
  • FREDDIE BOTUR, CATTLE RANCHER "When that steer was taken down, the economic impact to my operation wasn't that I just lost a 950-pound steer. That's all I got compensated for. But the problem comes with the 1,000 other steers that were in with that steer when they were being harassed and predated on by a pack of wolves. Typically a steer will gain 2.1 pounds a day in the time and the season they were at. When they got stressed out like that, they probably didn't gain anything. So I lost two pounds a day for probably two and a half days on a thousand steers. I didn't lose one steer. I lost a hell of a lot more money than that."

    Ted Wood
  • JASON AND RICHARD BALDES, SHOSHONE TRIBE: Richard: "I admire the wolf for a number of reasons. The primary reason is because wolves take care of their own, and I think the tribes will learn from that. If wolves should disappear from other parts of the country, they will always be here. They're going to be protected by the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes. Because they're part of the culture. They're part of the system. The Creator put them here for a reason."

    Ted Wood
 

(For the related video, click here.)

On March 28, 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that the 13-year-old reintroduction of gray wolves to the Northern Rockies had been a success. "Recovery goals" for numbers of wolf packs and breeding pairs had been met and exceeded: The 66 original transplants from Canada had spawned more than 1,500 U.S.-born descendants. With great fanfare, the feds removed the wolf from the federal endangered species list and handed over its management to the three states where the wolves now denned, howled and hunted: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Each state produced a plan intended to protect the wolf while allowing for "management" of human-wolf conflicts. Montana's approach, which seemed to satisfy most people in the state, allowed citizens to kill wolves that ate livestock and also instituted a modest hunting season. Idaho, which has more wolves than the other two states, announced a similar plan with a somewhat different attitude: The confrontational governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter, vowed to bid on the first wolf tag. Wyoming's approach –– the most controversial –– defined wolves as "trophy" animals that could be hunted by permit where they were most populous, in the northwestern part of the state. In the rest of the state, however, they were now considered "predators" and could be shot on sight for any reason whatsoever.

A few days after delisting, hunters legally shot three wolves in Sublette County, part of Wyoming's "predator zone." Over the next weeks, ranchers, hunters and state wildlife agents dispatched dozens more. All told, more than 100 wolves were killed in the months following the delisting.

Conservationists were suddenly afraid that wolf-haters with "Smoke a Pack a Day" bumper stickers pasted on their Ford F-250s might undo the most successful carnivore reintroduction in history. They sued to reverse the delisting, arguing that the state plans would wipe out any wolves that left prescribed zones in Yellowstone, central Idaho and Glacier National Park in Montana. If that happened, the suit argued, each state's wolf population would be cut off from the others, endangering the wolves' long-term genetic viability.

On July 18, 2008, a federal judge ruled that the delisting had been premature, and agreed that the genetic viability argument likely had merit. He ordered the wolf's return to endangered species status until the court could review the entire case. Then, on Sept. 22, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would back away from its delisting proposal until the states' plans were reconsidered. With the judge's decision and subsequent federal action, Canis lupus became, once again, a federally protected species in the Northern Rockies.

Which might not be the best thing in the long run. The recent whipsaw of federal, state, judicial and federal control of wolves has damaged the delicate alliances that greens, ranchers and Teddy Roosevelt Republicans forged during the last decade or so. After finding common ground in battling the impacts of the energy boom, greens are again finding themselves vilified by anti-wolf Westerners — constituencies they need to prevail in the still largely conservative West. It may be a case of winning the lawsuit and prolonging the war.

Even some environmentalists winced at the lawsuit that returned the wolves to federal control, predicting that even semi-peaceful coexistence with wolves in a state like Wyoming "is never going to happen unless they're Wyoming's wolves, and not ‘the-feds-shoved-them-down-our-throats wolves,' " says Stephanie Kessler, Wyoming representative for The Wilderness Society.

You could have seen this happening from more than a decade away.