Conservationists wrong to oppose wolf hunt

Wolves have recovered, and it's time for more rational management


I never thought I’d say this, but wolf recovery in the West has been the most successful program ever accomplished under the Endangered Species Act. Thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are more than 1,650 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming today, as well as a couple more wolves in Oregon, Washington and Utah. Only 15 years ago, there were none.

For many years I doubted that wolves could ever be restored to the West. Now, packs can be found in most of the formerly vacant drainages in central Idaho, filling nearly all of their original niches.  But because of their recovery, wolves can now be hunted in Idaho and Montana, where about 20 percent of the wolf population is scheduled to be killed this year.  For just 12 bucks, you, too, can shoot a wolf in Idaho.

In the 1980s, I worked with the Idaho Conservation League, and we challenged the original wolf reintroduction proposal in court because we had evidence that two wolves already lived in northern Idaho. The Fish and Wildlife Service argued that only a reintroduction plan could recover the wolves in the Northern Rockies, and we lost the case. The federal agency was right, however, and its work in wolf recovery is, frankly, an amazing accomplishment.

When the wolves were brought back in 1995 and 1996, the decision stated that when the population grew to 15 pairs in two out of the three reintroduction states, the wolves would be “delisted” -- taken off the endangered species list that protects animals from being killed. A few years later, the number of breeding pairs triggering a delisting was increased to 30 pairs in two of the three states.  In 2009, I am no longer working for the Idaho Conservation League, but I know that the number of wolves in Idaho is far greater than 30 breeding pairs.

Now, several conservation groups are fighting to keep the wolves listed as endangered for ecological reasons -- despite the number of wolves and their apparent success. The groups’ lawsuit argues that the wolves have not recovered yet.

That is simply disingenuous, as the goal has clearly been met. Conservationists need to be honest about their goals. If they insist on supporting shifting numbers, they may find that they represent shifting support. More to the point, however, is their refusal to accept that this victory for wolves endangers the Endangered Species Act, which protects all endangered species. What Defenders of Wildlife and other groups have done in filing a lawsuit fails to serve the wolves, the integrity of the law and the people of Idaho and the West.

At the same time, Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game needs to make rules that reflect history: Wolves were slaughtered in the past and must not be slaughtered in the future. So far, the state’s rules are inadequate. If so many wolves are killed that fewer than 15 packs in both Idaho and Montana remain, the route to re-list the wolves under the Endangered Species Act should be clear, rapid and automatic. Punishment also should be severe and automatic for anyone who poaches a wolf, and the trapping and poisoning of wolves should continue to be illegal, as that is primarily what caused their extermination in the first place.

In addition, each wolf that is legally shot should bring in at least $150 or even as much as $1,000 to the state of Idaho. The pittance of $11.50 for a hunting tag dishonors biologists, hunters, the federal and Idaho governments and the people of Idaho -- not to mention the wolves themselves. It also dishonors the Endangered Species Act, which acts as the conscience of our nation with regard to wildlife. We have paid dearly to have wolves returned to our land, and the hunting tags we issue should reflect that. 

Finally, now is the time to stop bickering and begin to manage wolves rationally. I hope that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game makes it clear that wolves will continue to exist in our state forever. That is the agency’s job as it begins this new chapter in wolf management, with hunting added to the mix. Conservationists have a different task: learning to accept some losses of wolves in order to ensure their continued survival as a species.

Mike Medberry is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in McCall, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Conservationists wrong to oppose wolf hunt
Sep 19, 2009 07:29 AM
I have been an ardent supporter of wolves my whole life, but this is one of the most balanced things I've read on the status of wolf recovery in a long time. Wolves, like no other predator species I can think of, have an amazing capacity to polarize people, and all too frequently, you only hear from the extremes of the spectrum. If wolves have met the pre-determined levels for being de-listed, great. We should celebrate that success. But the author is also absolutely correct in reminding IDF&G that that shouldn't be seen as a reason to go back to allowing the kinds of practices that made them endangered in the first place. Thanks to Mr. Medberry and HCN for a voice of reason.
hate to admit he's right
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy
Sep 22, 2009 11:45 AM
Never thought I'd say it, because I love wolves, but the author is right. STILL, I flew in to Fish Lake, in northern Idaho, a few years ago and camped overnight. Walked around the beautiful tiny lake, where several female moose were munching water plants, along with their calves. Found three moose skeletons in the bushes around the lake, all with missing heads. Naturally these were taken by hunters, and let's assume legally. But other Idaho pilots I spoke with about Fish Lake, where I happened to mention the dead moose, all INSISTED they were killed by "damn" wolves. Since when do wolves hang trophies up in their dens? Closed mindedness is evident on both sides.
Missing Moose Heads
Sep 22, 2009 04:51 PM
The answer is "horn hunters" - folks go out in the spring to collect antlers and skulls. The wolves have killed a lot of prime animals (after the rut) and there are a lot more antlers still attached to skulls as the animals were killed before they shed in the spring. Picking up antlers is legal. Not all "trophies hanging in dens" were hunted.
Wyoming's plight
Don Cuin
Don Cuin
Sep 22, 2009 12:14 PM
I agree with your comments somewhat. What is missing is any semblence of the plight or cost to the State of Wyoming and the disingeniousness of both the plantiffs in this and other trials Wyoming must spend and the damage to wildlife and those who depend on income from hunting or guiding in Wyoming. It is truly frustrating to cherry pick a judge and venue to hear one's case.
Don Cuin Rawlins, Wyoming. Thanks for the civility of your comments.
Grant Simonds
Grant Simonds
Sep 22, 2009 12:59 PM
The author is right-on to express the disenginuous of certain environmental groups relative to the notion that somehow the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are not recovered when in fact the tri-state region has in excess of 5 times the number of wolves agreed upon originally. It is way past time for the plaintiffs to declare victory and move on.
Pros & Cons With Fear
Russell M. Cera
Russell M. Cera
Nov 13, 2009 07:26 PM
As the author of Cry Wolf, Cry, a novel characterized as glorifying the wolf, I have given considerable thought in responding to this issue. To say I am on the side of the wolf lovers is an understatement, but to wade in without regard for the logic of those who want wolves to remain “delisted” is not without prejudice.

When wolves were removed from the endangered species list by the federal government, my heart sank for the carnage I knew would follow for the gray wolf. One would only have to see videos of an aerial hunt like those in Alaska to be appalled by this ghastly and cruel method of killing. Even people who are inured to various methods of slaughter find the footage difficult to view.

Here I strayed from the issue, but let it suffice to say I have come to realize there is merit to both sides of the delisting debate. We who want to preserve the wolf must realize that due to the proliferation of human population and the expanse of man’s agricultural and industrial influence, the world of the wolf has diminished to levels that can no longer support the expansive wolf packs of the past without dire inconvenience to people.

There might not be a debate if we could accurately establish the number by which we determine how many wolves any particular habitat can support. For varied reasons, biologist cannot agree on this number or even estimate its parameters. To suggest that 20 percent of the wolf population in Idaho and Montana should be killed this year is mere conjecture at best. To have the life of an animal subjected to guesstimating when an indefinable quota is reached is a grim fate.

For the proponents of denying wolves the protection of the Endangered Species Act, I would encourage they utilize intelligent research rather than emotionally charged rhetoric handed down by generations of ancestors who came to this continent with preconceived mindsets that all wolves should be destroyed. And let there be no doubt that this thinking prevails. That Idaho alone issued 14,000 permits to kill wolves in that state when the approximate number of wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Utah is around 1,700 animals.

If we need more evidence that the total destruction of wolves in Idaho is the state’s ultimate goal, we need not look further than the motivation a $12.50 permit fee engenders compared to the $180.75 application fee to hunt for a moose or elk. This verve to eliminate a species is as pronounced as it was prior to the late 1930s when virtually all wolves were eradicated from the continental United States.

Yes, it is disingenuous to suggest that wolves have not recovered substantially since their reintroduction to Yellowstone in 1995. The wolf’s resolve is strong, and his ability to adapt and survive uncanny, but these traits are not so unique as to withstand the onslaught of man’s hatred. To suggest that the wolves of Idaho are being killed for ecological reasons is by far much more disingenuous.

If this kind of hate thinking is to continue, and “the time has come for the plaintiffs to declare victory,” as Grant Simonds proclaims, there will be no time or place for the gray wolves to “move on” to. Herein my greatest fear, and the reason I have spent thousands of dollars and countless hours to write and promote Cry, Wolf, Cry, a novel that I’ve researched thoroughly to bring an understanding amidst the confusion and misconceptions of one of nature’s more magnificent animals.

Russell M. Cera

 See my book and its reviews at:

Reasonable Wolf Management
Brian Cluer
Brian Cluer
Sep 22, 2009 12:46 PM
Mike Medberry's comment on reasonable wolf management is a breath of fresh air in this stifling atmosphere where you are either a wolf hater or a wolf lover. I too think there is a lot of reasonable middle ground for responsible management. But the States sure haven't shown that intention, and I suppose the conservation groups find that they have little choice but to react to that lack of integrity. For example, it is appalling that the Idaho Fish and Game Commission stated in all the public meetings that they would use every tool in their tool box to reasonably manage wolves, and then you look in that tool box all you see are guns and dirt cheap wolf tags. What a slap in the face. But this should be also a wakeup call; a state F&G manages for a select sector of society, the hunters and fishermen. Where are the other people's interests represented in this issue, and by which agency charged with managing the wolf?

I would add to Medberry's comment that there is a need for some new science to improve our understanding of this fantastic experiment with species. The delisting plan was based on a best estimate of a sustainable population, 3 decades ago, when we had no idea how many wolves could live in the modern and fragmented habitat. The wolves themselves have shown us those numbers were way off. And I would also add that there is little if any recognition of the economic value to the States' and residents that conservation management for larger wolf populations could bring. It is a simple fact that a lot of people would like to see wolves in the wild, or hear them, or just know that they are there. These are national and international facets on the gem. Idaho especially needs to be sensitive to its national image, given its fame as a stronghold for extremists against human rights, and current home of plenty of people who would today obliterate the wolves given the chance.

It is going to take reasonable people having informed discussions to come up with reasonable management strategies for the wolf. So far, there seems to be few of those people in the room.
Brian's 'reasonable management'
Robert Hill
Robert Hill
Sep 22, 2009 05:30 PM
Brian says, "The delisting plan was based on a best estimate . . . 3 decades ago, when we had no idea how many wolves could live in the modern and fragmented habitat. The wolves themselves have shown us those numbers were way off." My point exactly (see entry below).

"And I would also add that there is little ... economic value to ... management for larger wolf populations .... A lot of people would like to see wolves in the wild, or hear them, or just know that they are there." Ummm . . . sorry, there are more moose hunters from Noo Joisey than there are wolf lovers from wherever there are wolves. Hell, there are more people from Noo Joisey (it's a state of mind)than there are from the rest of the lower 48.
Delisting Wolves: Medberry article
Barbara Wagner
Barbara Wagner
Sep 22, 2009 12:46 PM
With a degree in Biology, additional coursework in wildlife management, and years at the US Fish & Wildlife Service: I disagree with the author.

In fact I am surprised at his new stance, given his history:
Conservation Groups Protest Lowering Wolf Recovery Goals for the Northern Rockies.
Feb. 29, 2000: “…While we share the goal of contiguous wolf populations across the northern Rockies, it has by no means been achieved on the ground…These proposed changes to the wolf recovery program in mid-course are a serious matter that must
be rectified as the apparent new direction is contrary to good science, the
law, and the public interest...Sincerely…Mike Medberry, American Lands, Boise, ID [et al]

TMDL Experts List…Clean Water Network, January 2002…Mike Medberry…Boise, ID…Mike has worked on TMDLs in Idaho for over a decade. His most in-depth work has been on TMDL development and implementation for the Owyhee River and the Snake River/Hells Canyon complex. As part of these TMDLs, Mike has worked on technical nutrient and sediment issues and wrestled with grazing impacts, irrigated agriculture, and point source pollution issues….[…]/TMDL_Experts_List.pdf

Meeting Report. Utah Wolf Working Group (Wwg) Meeting #10. 28 September 2004… Participants:…Others… Mike Medberry…For at least the next ten years, it is the opinion of wolf experts in Idaho and Wyoming that any wolves in Utah will be dispersing individuals and it is unlikely that packs will be formed in that time period.[…]/sept_28_04.pdf

Mike Medberry worked for The Wilderness Society, Idaho Conservation League, American Lands, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council from 1983-2005 before starting a business selling and installing solar panels in McCall. [2005][…]/514467.html

April 10, 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Western Gray Wolf Recovery Coordinator
585 Shepherd Way, Helena, Montana 59601 Re: RIN number 1018-RU53 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains…At this time we strongly oppose delisting wolves in the northern Rockies…Mike Medberry, Executive Director[…]/advance_notice_of_proposed_rulemaking.pdf

Proving him right?
David Langhorst
David Langhorst
Sep 26, 2009 04:08 PM
Ms. Wagner: You are correct about Mike's impeccable conservation background, which provides good reason to agree with him. You cite your own background, and yet give no argument at all as to why you "disagree." You should not be "surprised." The organization you worked for supports de-listing, and hunting as a management tool. So do all of the USFWS biologists I know.
Mike Medberry, and the others who were there during the fight over recovery plans, remember what the Final EIS recovery goal was and that hunting of wolves (as one of the most regulated tools that states have) was a legitimate expectation.
The big issue in this debate is simple good faith. If conservationists fail to honor their commitments, how will that affect other battles over endangered species? Conservationists like Mike, Hank Fisher, and Tom France; USFWS biologists like Ed Bangs; and states like Idaho and Montana have exhibited good faith. It doesn't mean they all agree on every aspect, but this kind of good faith is what in the end will be credited with enabling wolf recovery and delisting.
Historical populations?
Dan Rademacher
Dan Rademacher
Sep 22, 2009 12:51 PM
I live in the SF Bay Area, which was likely never home to wolves, though we had our share of grizzlies. What always confuses me about wolf recovery discussions is that I seem rarely to hear what the historic, presettlement populations would have been. 30 pairs for a whole state? Just doesn't seem like a lot of animals, or much of a buffer to potential shifts in habitat conditions/prey abundance, with or without climate change. Unlike moose, or elk, or other herbivores, wolves are not what I think of as a "natural" prey item. Nobody eats wolf, right? So what would have been the natural caps on their populations in the past? Do the management targets already approximate those conditions to the extent possible? I realize that restoration can rarely, if ever, go back to "the way things were." We'll never have grizzlies on the Oakland shoreline again. But I think it is salutary to keep in mind that those former conditions, prevalent a mere 100-300 years ago depending on the location, are more or less the evolutionary present for most any species in the West.
What Mike Leaves Out
Danny Kramer
Danny Kramer
Sep 22, 2009 01:32 PM
This column completely leaves out the element of recovery that the Fish & Wildlife Service set out for for wolves in 1994 and a federal judge ruled it had not met in 2008: "genetic exchange between subpopulations." Wolf numbers are less meaningful if populations are isolated, since isolation can lead to inbreeding, and right now the scientific evidence shows that wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho are not mating with wolves in northwest Montana. As Judge Molloy found in 2008, that means that the recovery goals have not been met and the wolves remain endangered.

It is not environmentalists shifting the baseline for recovery, but the Service, in saying, inexplicably, that genetic exchange is no longer important. And in case the delisted wolves can't reach other delisted subpopulations to interbreed, can you guess what the Service's plan is? "Human translocation." Does that sound like the type of management you would expect for a recovered species?

The bottom line, as Judge Molloy held in 2008, is that wolves are not recovered until we observe natural genetic exchange between subpopulations sufficient to sustain a viable wolf metapopulation in the Northern Rockies.
Sep 22, 2009 02:30 PM
Well written piece. I agree with most of what the author stated, however some of the replies are missing some facts. First there is no way to positively assert that wolves are or are not in fact interbreeding with wolves from other states. However there is plenty of science behind the reasoning that they are. Radio tracking shows that wolves are regularly crossing back and forth between the states. The collared wolves doing the crossing represent a small portion of the total wolf population within MT, WY and ID. So a reasonable person shouldn’t have much trouble making the leap that if there are dozens of instances where radio collared wolves have crossed state lines, then far more are doing so and as such interbreeding among the sub populations is certainly occurring.
For the readers thinking 30 pairs isn’t enough, there are many more than 30 pairs in MT, WY, and ID now. Also pre-extirpation numbers are not realistic. There isn’t the land or prey base around anymore to support those numbers. I live in SW MT and we are pretty well saturated with them. If they would stop killing domestic livestock we have even more.
who sets the wolf quota?
Robert Hill
Robert Hill
Sep 22, 2009 05:07 PM
Mike Medberry makes a reasonable case for hunting wolves again. Not that I'm for it, but his argument makes sense - until he says that "If so many wolves are killed that fewer than 15 packs in both Idaho and Montana remain, the route to relist wolves under the Endangered Species Act should be clear, rapid and automatic." (I'm assuming he means 15 packs in each state, not in both states). But from the standpoint of a healthy ecology, why just 15 packs? Who decided that was the optimal number for that nutrient-rich range? I suspect Mike is right, that if the quota keeps rising, the animal lobby will lose its traction with ranchers and their politicians. But I'm also betting that wolves aren't quite as adaptable as coyotes, need a larger range and larger breeding communities, and 15 packs might still qualify as close enough to endangered. Set the quota, but set it at a rational number (not a mathematically rational number, not a politically rational number, a biologically rational one).
disingenuous at best
Ben Otto
Ben Otto
Sep 22, 2009 09:51 PM
Mr Medberry, your article is self contradictory. You argue that conservationists should declare victory and move on. Then, in the next paragraph, you explain how the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's rules protecting wolves "are inadequate."

Please tell us how these rules will ever become adequate if conservationists are not there to advocate for stricter laws. At the recent meeting in Idaho approving the hunt the F and G commissioners rejected a much higher hunting quota in an attempt to head off a legal challenge. Do you seriously believe the Idaho F and G will protect wolves on their own?

According to your logic, conservationists should sit idly by while the states follow their historical trends and eradicate wolves again. Great advice.
louise wagenknecht
louise wagenknecht
Sep 23, 2009 02:36 PM
The hunting season is beside the point. Idaho has been and continues to use Wildlife Services to wipe out entire packs. Many places in Idaho are "wolf sinks" due to depredation killings. No one is talking about that.
Mike, consider this...
Vanessa Schulz
Vanessa Schulz
Oct 14, 2009 09:09 AM
As printed in the Source Weekly, Oct. 8, 2009 -

In the September 24 issue of The Source, “Off Target: Conservationists’ opposition to hunting wolves is wrongheaded,” Mike Medberry criticizes conservationists for filing a lawsuit to protect wolves, while portraying himself as a pro-hunting conservationist. To extol the bloodshed and death involved in hunting under the guise of conservation is a popular but absurd paradox.
I have taken the time to meet face-to-face with the hunters who have the most bloodlust in this current debate, and I can tell you they have not lost an ounce of the fervor it took to quarter wolves for fun a century ago. These are the people Medberry directly or indirectly supports by saying it’s time to hunt wolves.

Bottom line: The 6th mass extinction is being caused by an over-population of humans. Yet if we’re not too busy ignoring it, we still find ways to defend and perpetuate the perplexing violence against other species.

Men, in their role as God, actually came up with the term “non-essential, experimental” to describe reintroduced wolves. Combine heart with an open mind and one sees wolves as more than an experiment, or a target; one sees an animal as socially bonded to its family as we are to ours. Their striking likeness to ourselves is what draws us to them. To allow sport-hunting of such an animal, particularly given our history with wolves, is indefensible, and no amount of science, biology or mathematics will ever change that. Wolves regulate themselves. Nature regulates wildlife. Nature will ultimately regulate us.

This is the crucial point that Medberry misses. Wolves don’t need management. People need management. Humanity must learn to accept limits. Self-control and tolerance will make for a much better world.

Medberry claims wolves now fill nearly all of their original niches. Is he joking? Wolves once roamed from east coast to west, New York, Billings, Boise, the beach in L.A., land now farmed, grazed, buried under golf course and concrete. This is our most critical problem—we don’t remember how things ought to be. The very idea that we should decide the numbers of wolves allowed to exist overlooks the depth, range and complexity of millions of years of evolution. In Yellowstone, a supposed haven for wolves, numbers are dropping because of disease and inbreeding, nature’s reaction to a lack of space.

Hunting wolves is merely part of erroneous welfare subsidies for consumptive groups in control of federal policy. The recent $40,000 taxpayer dollars conceded by two Oregon counties for an executioner to be put to work killing predators is another part of this hideous system, hangover of a bygone era involving wagons.

Medberry extols the success of the reintroduction program through the typically masculine, microscopic viewpoint of numbers alone, failing to consider the suffering wolves endured during capture, the separation from family, drugging, tagging, collaring, transport, the unreported deaths beginning already in Canada, disorientation of release into unfamiliar territory, the mortalities it took to re-inhabit this land under man’s new rules (like don’t eat cows or sheep, nor elk or deer), the ongoing, heavy-handed management and “control,” i.e. killing by federal agents who are paid salaries for what others do for sport. Success is relative. Creating corridors for natural migration would have been a far more cost-effective and humane way of allowing them back, but people need jobs.

Considering the history of wolves, their torture and persecution during their slaughter as well as their reintroduction, for Medberry to say that “WE” have paid dearly to have wolves returned to “our” land is outrageous in its blanketed arrogance reminiscent of what we did to the Indians along the way. And this is his argument for raising the price of a wolf tag? From $11.50 to $150, “or as much as” wowee $1,000! If I pay $2,000 can I shoot a hunter? Who on earth has the right to value life by numbers? Science has destroyed more in this world than spirit ever did.

We are all the victims of the prejudices of our time. During this time, it is that we have the right, the obligation, to control other species, to exercise dominion over them. With wildlife so utterly marginalized, tormented, so tragically diminished, a far wiser gesture would be to manage ourselves, to leave pockets of wilderness with predators and prey, their own codes of conduct in tact from ancient relationships that precede us by millennia. When the world screams a warning of extinction to accept limits, let us begin with wolves, a species whose history exemplifies the ignorance and arrogance of man. Let’s support those aiming to protect, not kill, and let’s at last call hunting by its true name: Murder.

– Vanessa Schulz

Schulz has produced award-winning documentaries on the federal government’s role in wolf reintroduction and predator control programs. Visit for more information.[…]the-answer-in-the-west.html
Wolves and Conservationists
Timothy Ray
Timothy Ray
Nov 01, 2010 10:26 AM
Mike Medberry criticizes those conservationists who continue to oppose wolf kills, on the ground that wolves in the USA are not he brink of extinction, even though they were previously wiped out and Canadian wolves had to brought in to re-establish a natural balance. He fails to address the natural role of predators and effect of human hunters on that balance. First, natural predators strengthen the deer and caribou species by taking the slowest and weakest animals, leaving the fittest to survive, eat and give birth to very fit offspring. Human hunters (especially those who really don't have to hunt in order to eat) select the fittest animals (the fastest and most magnificent) to kill and boast about, leaving the puniest to survive and breed. To those who says "But the wolves kill our livestock," the answer is that Americans are dying, on average, before our time, thanks to diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol (i.e.meats), whereas northern Italians and others who stick to "Mediterranean diets" live longer, more active, and happier lives. Let the ranchers use their land to grow soy beans and other crops high in vegetable proteins, which will nourish many times per acre the numbers of people who can survive from using the land to produce meat. No, God did not give us the land to use in selfish and self-indulgent ways. We can actually use it to save many thousands of undernourished people here and throughout the world, with our producers still netting a handsome return. Why not?