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for people who care about the West

Still Howling Wolf

Will Westerners finally learn how to live with Canis lupus?

 

(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.

On a sub-zero January day near Hinton, Alberta, in 1995, I lost the feeling in my toes while reporting on the wolf reintroduction. As the anesthetized wolves arrived into holding pens, their fierce green fire dulled by drugs, I wondered how they would fare in one of the country's fastest-growing regions. From Coeur d'Alene to Silver City, an influx of modem cowboys posed new challenges to the West's traditional agricultural base. Into this volatile mix, the feds were now bringing a critter that had been hunted, trapped and poisoned to the brink of extinction before the Great Depression.

The remote location of the wolves' new homes in central Idaho and Yellowstone would enable them to go forth and multiply, dispersing into a much larger area. But how would the people respond? Could the old-timers adapt to yet another change? Would Westerners nursing an enduring grudge against Washington ever accept the government-protected varmints? Would the new lifestyle refugees be able to live with Canis lupus chomping down on their bichons frisés?

It was hard to find a rural Westerner who thought wolf reintroduction was a good idea. States' rights were a hot topic that year, and Wyoming and Idaho wanted wolves about as much as they wanted Bill Clinton as president. At the same time, a growing tourism and recreation economy was bringing people to a region still wild enough for large predators. Depending on your point of view, the wolf represented unfettered federal intrusion, a carnivorous devil, or all that is noble and pure in the notion of wildness.

I wondered: Was the West changing fast enough — or perhaps too much — to accommodate a new predator?

Nearly 14 years later, I took a weeklong trip through the wolf's southern range, mostly in Sublette County, Wyo., right after the federal judge's ruling reclaimed wolf management from the states. I sought an answer to a simple question: After living with wolves for more than a decade, had anybody actually changed their mind about them?

The obvious response can be found in a terse one-word reply from Mike Jimenez, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has been at ground zero for the entire wolf program: "Nope."

In some ways, little has changed since those first Canadian wolves set paw on U.S. territory. Most ranchers still feel that it made as much sense to bring wolves back as it does to feed locoweed to your own cattle, and many hunters and outfitters believe the wolves are decimating trophy animal herds. Environmentalists still hail the beneficial ecological effects of the wolf in the Northern Rockies – and promote the New West economic boom from wolf-inspired tourism.

But in visits with ranchers, sheepherders, outfitters, hunters, biologists, environmentalists and Native Americans, a more nuanced answer emerged. Despite all the hot rhetoric, the truth is that since wolves were released, a lot has been done to accommodate people who live with predators. Government and private programs have eased tensions by paying ranchers when wolves kill their animals. Ranchers and sheepherders adapted to the wolves' presence with more intensive range management, putting up better fencing and hiring more riders, and government wildlife managers are quicker to kill wolf packs that repeatedly prey on livestock.

No matter where you stand on the issue, it's clear that the wolves have had a profound impact. Beneficial biological effects are cascading through the wolves' expanding range. Political alliances have been formed and broken because of wolves, and some people have lost money even as others have made it.

But the West of 2008 is not the same as the West of 1995, much less the 1930s. It's a stretch to say that human attitudes have changed just as profoundly. Still, even as wolves spread to more heavily populated areas, there is now broad acceptance that wolves are here to stay, and that Westerners must, however grudgingly, get used to living with them.

That's not to say that everyone's happy. Take Albert Sommers, a third-generation Wyoming cattleman whose grandfather was a charter member of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, which includes about a dozen ranchers who run cattle during summer months on U.S. Forest Service land near the Green River's headwaters. It's wild country, with grizzlies, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and, as of about eight years ago, wolves.

I meet Sommers on a late July day, and he tells me I'm in luck because his rider just witnessed a wolf kill up the valley on the allotment.

As we bounce up to the scene in his truck, Sommers says his dad was probably about 12 in 1927 when the last wolf was killed in the area. The big predators virtually disappeared. Then, in about 1993, the first grizzly kill happened not far from here. As the protected grizzlies recovered, they killed more cattle, and by 1997, says Sommers, it was "horrendous." (Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted in March 2007.)

Meanwhile, dispersing wolves formed new packs and crossed the Gros Ventre range. In 2000, they made their first cattle kill in the Upper Green about 130 miles south of Yellowstone. The dual whammy hit Sommers hard. Prior to the first grizzly kill, he says, the cattle association averaged about a 2 percent calf loss. By 2005 or so, it had jumped to 7 percent. "I don't have anything against the wolf except the wolf eats my cattle," he says. "The difference between grizzly bears and wolves is that bears sleep six months out of the year and a wolf doesn't."

We arrive at the kill site, where the rider, Leif Videen, and Rod Merrill from the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service stand over the fly-ridden corpse of a calf. Examining the wounds and tracks, Merrill confirms it's a wolf kill. The 28-year-old Videen says he thought the animal lurking around the cattle was a coyote at first. He glassed it with his binoculars, saw a wolf hamstring a Hereford, and drove the predator away.

Videen is a hired hand, so he didn't suffer a financial loss from the kill. Still, he surprises me when I ask him about wolves. "To me, it's just part of the deal, I guess, that there are predators here," he says from his saddle. "I guess I like this country because it's wild country, and that's one of the things that makes it wild is bears and wolves." He adds, perhaps suddenly recalling who signs his paycheck, "I don't like seein' 'em kill livestock. It definitely makes a lot of work for a person."

Sommers says it's important that ranchers like him stay on the land, staving off subdivisions and providing some cultural continuity. Like many locals, he understands that wolves will remain in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, but believes they should be killed when they stray too far. As Sommers sees it, wolves simply can't run free up and down the spine of the Rockies anymore. "Wolves were reintroduced into a landscape that is not what they left. The wolf is now in a landscape that is dominated by man."

Sommers is less angry than he is practical when it comes to wolves. There are compensation programs; Defenders of Wildlife, for example, has paid more than $900,000 to ranchers who have lost cattle to wolves. But they're barely a start, Sommers says. He explains that he loses 3.5 head for every confirmed grizzly kill, and seven head for every confirmed wolf kill. That's because a cow carcass doesn't last long here, between the wolves, grizzlies, coyotes and ravens, and not all wolf predation could possibly be documented.

And not everyone agrees that ranchers should be compensated. Gretel Ehrlich, a former ranch hand, sheepherder and an author best known for her Western elegy The Solace of Open Spaces, says that the country does not owe ranchers that much. "If you raise livestock in a country where there are fierce predators, as there are here, then in a way you make a pact with the possibility of those deaths," she told me at a Pinedale picnic.

Cat Urbikit, a sheep rancher who operates near Big Piney, is a member of the Sublette County Predator Board. She thinks the compensation program is the least that governments can do for ranchers. Her county, awash in gas money, has dedicated funds for compensating ranchers, as has the Wyoming Legislature. But she's not just sitting around waiting to be paid for losses. She's long used Akbash guard dogs against coyotes, but the smallish dogs don't stand a chance against wolves. So she started raising Central Asian Aziats that run to 160-180 pounds. She adopted a pair of wild burros named Bill and Hillary, and trained them to protect her flock. When wolves do show up, she doesn't hesitate to call on wildlife officials to get rid of them by any means necessary. "Wolves are absolutely not welcome on our ranch," she says.

For his part, Sommers seems resigned. "The wolf is reintroduced now," he says. "Things do change, and you have to move forward."

Then he points out one unfortunate, and certainly unintended, consequence of the recent wolf ruling. Sommers' ranch, like much of Sublette County, has been hugely impacted by energy development. He has considered placing a conservation easement on his private land, and has reluctantly found himself in agreement with environmentalists who want to slow the gas-drilling binge of the past decade. But he says that being at odds with the same people over wolves makes it almost impossible for them to work together against the energy companies. "You want to kinda win the hearts and minds of those who live, work and recreate in predator country," he says. By suing to put the wolf back in the feds' hands, he says, the environmentalists burned a tenuous bridge.

Sommers isn't alone in that belief.

B.J. Hill is an outfitter who takes clients out to hunt big game. Across the three-state Western wolf region, a debate rages about how much wolves have affected the populations of elk (and moose and deer and bison). Hill blames every client's unfilled elk tag on wolves, and he says the recent lawsuit to reverse the delisting was an affront. "I'm anti-wolf now," he sputters at The Place, a bar and restaurant he recently bought near Cora. "I'm done with them and I'm done with environmentalists. I'm done with all of them."

That's partly because, among Wyoming sportsmen, elk is king. The state feeds wild elk in winter feedgrounds because ranches, subdivisions, and more recently, gas fields have gobbled up much of the animal's traditional winter range. (Controversy broils over the feedgrounds, which some say are incubators for brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort.) Hunters and outfitters believe wolves treat elk feedgrounds like an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

"Game and Fish knows that these (elk) calf numbers are plummeting," Hill says with conviction. "They know it."

Mike Stevie, another local outfitter, recounts how when he was working at a feedground, he saw a wolf pack move in and tear up the elk. "Everybody says a wolf will just come kill the sick and the weak — that's totally off the wall." Stevie says he watched a pack kill 30 healthy elk that winter, using the feedground to teach the young wolves how to hunt. "They were just hamstringing them and lettin' them go," he says. "They're definitely a killing machine."

But even here, there's another side to the story. John Fandek, a ranch hand who lives near Cora, also works at elk feedgrounds during the winter. "One lone wolf showed up four years ago, a big black male," he recalls from his yard on the border of the trophy/predator wolf zone in the Upper Green River Valley. "He killed essentially every crippled elk on the feed ground. I know that some people say they kill indiscriminately, but it was very obvious to me that this particular wolf and other wolves I've seen there will take the cripples first, simply because it's easier."

Scott Werbelow, the game warden coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish in Pinedale, offers yet another perspective. Werbelow says elk numbers are strong and relatively stable in his area. "Many hunters think the wolves have killed all the elk," he says. "What we're seeing is that the elk have been moved from small groups into larger groups, and the larger groups of elk have been redistributed."

In other words, the elk in these parts at least have responded to the presence of predators by behaving more like … elk. Mike Stevie, the outfitter who witnessed the multiple wolf kills at the elk feedground, surprises me again by agreeing. "The elk population seems to be doing pretty well, really," he says. "It's just making it a lot harder to find the animals. And they're dispersing into places where we've never had to hunt before. And it's just making it tougher on our clientele and on our help."

I provoke him a little by asking if the wolf is just making it so hunters have to actually hunt again, rather than going shooting, and he nods his head in total agreement. "Back in the old times, the old good hunters, they'd have loved every minute of it," he says with a smile. "But now it's just such a fast-paced world that our clients they just want to get in, fill their tag and move on. And the wolves are not helping them much."

The wolves have been very good, however, to David Watson, a New Western outfitter. Watson, who runs Wildlife Expeditions for the nonprofit Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, leads multi-day wolf- and bear-watching tours as well as nine weeks of winter wolf-watching. He says that about a third of his business is wolf-related. "Wolves have really helped our business grow exponentially," he says. "You know, there's not too many places in the world where you can see wolves, or see wolves and bears at the same time."

Many observers are excited by the ecological response to the return of this top predator. Franz Camenzind, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, says that researchers have documented important changes, from a decline in coyote populations to an increase in willows, beavers and songbirds. "We take this one large animal, this significant predator in the ecosystem, put it back, and all of a sudden the impacts trickle down," he says.

Camenzind's group was party to the lawsuit, and he understands that people like B.J. Hill, whom he knows and has worked with, are not happy with the turn of events. "We get accused of moving the goal line or lifting the bar," he says. Still, Camenzind defends the decision to force the states to deal with the question of genetic viability, not just the numbers of wolves above minimum recovery goals. "That's written right in the recovery plan, and that never got the headlines," he says. "The numbers did."

But now it was Camenzind's turn to surprise me. "I guess the reality that we all have to face — and certainly people of my mindset — is that there will be wolf control," he says. "There will be wolves that will be hunted, they'll be trapped, they'll be shot. Because there's going to be a place where wolves will not be welcome."

That kind of middle-ground approach — allowing wolves to successfully repopulate some parts of the rural West but lethally evicting them from others — appears to be the only path through this biological and legal wrangling. With a little more commitment from their respective governors, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana ought to be able to redo their wolf plans in a way that appeases their agricultural constituencies and still ensures the continued health of wolf populations. The feds, in turn, have an abiding need to prove that the Endangered Species Act actually works — and will do whatever they can to convince the states to act in good faith. Ultimately, the goal is to delist the wolf again — and make it stick. 

Camenzind hopes that the judge's ruling and its consequences don't permanently sour the relationship between environmentalists, local sportsmen and ranchers. There are too many issues where everybody needs to stand together, he says, from creating migration corridors to regulating energy development. "One of the things I've learned is that you find the issues that you agree on and you trust to agree on that. If a segment of the ranching community feels that greens have betrayed them, I would hope that all of us would step back and say, maybe there's an issue that we don't agree on, but there's a larger context that we do."

The last leg of my journey takes me to the Wind River Indian Reservation, where the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes have created their own wolf-management plan, one that actually welcomes wolves. I sit down with Richard Baldes, a Shoshone and former Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, to see what the tribes have to say about the wolves' southern march.

The tribes' management plans are pretty simple. "The Wind River Reservation is somewhat of a sanctuary," Baldes tells me from his porch at the foot of the Wind River Mountains. Much as they do with the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, which was instrumental in the original reintroduction, wolves play an important role in the lore and religion of Shoshone and Arapahoe people. Wolves represent a social role model, for starters: "They take care of the family," Baldes says. "The aunts and uncles take care of the young, and they also take care of the old."

The obvious parallels between government efforts to eradicate wolves and past efforts to eradicate Indians aren't lost on Baldes. In fact, the resurgence of wolves is a powerful metaphor on the rez. "The Creator put them here for a reason," Baldes says. He chuckles to himself about the raging controversy. "People have made the issue with wolves much more complicated than it needs to be," he says. "It's just a nice feeling to know that these animals are back and that they're going to be here to stay. I don't see any reason why they won't be here forever."