Yes to wolves, but not so many

by Denver Bryan

As a hunter, conservationist and also a supporter of wolves taking their rightful place in the West, I take issue with the position of most environmental groups on this matter.

By just about every scientific metric, wolves have recovered in the Northern Rocky Mountains. At last count, we had a wolf population of 1,700 plus -- many times greater than the 300 wolves initially seen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as necessary to sustain a "recovered" population throughout Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Even though environmental groups helped come up with the figure of 300, several of them now argue that this minimum population was too low.

But after listening to Defenders of Wildlife, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, I've come to believe that many of their arguments are disingenuous -- primarily made just to placate the city-based members who have never lived in the West or in a rural setting with wolves nearby. These idealists have good intentions, but they seem to believe that wolves are just friendly cousins of the family dog. They don't understand or accept that we all live in a human-altered environment that requires responsible management of wildlife, including wolves.

Case in point:  In the early days of wolf reintroduction, Defenders of Wildlife offered to pay ranchers for livestock losses caused by wolves as a way of easing the burden of reintroduction.  But now that wolves are here to stay, they've recently dropped this program. Today, they expect the federal government -- taxpayers -- to pick up the bill for livestock losses.

Another example is the Natural Resources Defense Council, which claims that wolves were recently put back on the endangered species list by a federal judge because their "recovery is still in doubt." The facts show that Judge Donald Molloy was simply making a "letter of the law" interpretation of a small clause in the Endangered Species Act that says an endangered species can't be managed along state lines. Molloy is the same judge who last year ruled that it was okay to proceed with the first wolf-hunting seasons in Montana and Idaho.  The Environmental Defense Fund seems to be trying to avoid both science and expert testimony altogether by appealing to our emotional side: It's been using the example of "Limpy," an injured wolf that left the confines of Yellowstone National Park and was killed during last year's wolf hunting season.

More recently, the director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an organization that I'm still a member of and have regularly contributed to, claimed that wolves are akin to migratory waterfowl and ocean-run fish and should be managed similarly -- by the federal government, with states following its directives.

This is quite a leap. Though many waterfowl and  fish species travel great distances in short periods of time -- often crossing many state and even international borders - wolves, like most predator and prey species that have historically been managed by the states they inhabit, are earthbound and relatively territorial. The only motive I can find behind this argument is a desire to centralize wolf management in the distant political arena of Washington, D.C., where environmental groups have a better chance of pushing their agenda.  I think such groups don't want state management of wolf populations because they know the outcome will be wolf populations managed to more tolerable levels.

As a professional wildlife photographer living fairly close to Yellowstone Park, I've enjoyed viewing and photographing the wolves of Lamar Valley over the years, and I'm genuinely glad to see wolves restored to the Northern Rockies. But I don't view them through the rose-colored glasses worn by many environmentalists. The wolf packs of Lamar and elsewhere are efficient predators. They don't just take down "the old and the weak" as many environmentalists like to say. Wolf packs kill even healthy adult bull elk and moose with regularity.

Currently, wolves are significantly reducing big game herds in several regions throughout the Northern Rockies, and nearly every major elected official in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming is actively working to regain control of wolf management within their boundaries so that wolf populations can be managed at levels acceptable to the majority of their residents.

Environmental groups, responding to their many distant and urban-based members, push for high wolf populations and apparently don't care what it's like for those of us who live closer to the land with wolves in the backyard.

Denver Bryan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a former wildlife biologist turned professional wildlife photographer and lives in Bozeman, Montana.

© High Country News