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Know the West

Wolf case highlights need for collaboration


Sometimes no news is good news, so I’ll count last week's relatively uneventful oral arguments as a boon for continued wolf recovery efforts in the northern Rockies. But the mood both inside and outside the U.S. district courthouse in Missoula shows there’s still much work to be done to ensure sustainable wolf management in the region.

Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation organizations brought suit against the federal government for not providing adequate protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act. The legal question at stake is whether wolves can be protected in one state (Wyoming) while remaining under aggressive state management in neighboring states (Idaho and Montana).

Wyoming’s wolf plan would have allowed the animals to be shot on sight in 90 percent of the state, which was previously deemed to be inadequate protection for the species and resulted in their re-listing in Wyoming. Meanwhile, Idaho and Montana adopted more reasonable wolf plans, only to allow hunting in 2009 to cull the growing population. Unfortunately, the wolves don’t know when they’ve crossed state lines, leaving them in the precarious position of being safe on one side and targeted by hunters on the other.

The Endangered Species Act was designed to protect distinct population segments as contiguous areas on the landscape, not as parceled subdivisions based on political boundaries. Biologists agree that wolves must have adequate numbers and dispersal pathways for genetic exchange across the entire range in order for a healthy population to survive over the long run.

Though wolves have made a strong recovery thus far, their future is still uncertain. In 2009, 185 wolves were killed in Idaho and 73 in Montana during the first state-authorized hunt. If the hunts are allowed to continue, both states are likely to raise their quotas to take even more wolves off the landscape. Montana is considering doubling, or even tripling, its quota, and both state management plans allow for as few as 150 wolves per state.

Three hundred individuals are simply not enough to sustain the population. These minimum targets are based on outdated science that needs to be updated immediately in order for wolves to be permanently removed from federal protection. Ultimately, wolves need to be managed responsibly by the states as a valuable natural resource—not as unwanted predators.

The court case and the future of the hunt won’t be decided until later this year, but there is much that can be done in the meantime to address the legitimate concerns of hunters and ranchers without needlessly slaughtering wolves.

It’s true, wolves are thinning elk herds in select areas—some on prized hunting grounds. Wolves also move the elk around more which can make hunting trickier. But overall population estimates for the region indicate there are more than 350,000 elk and more than a million deer, putting them above management levels in most herds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. This is compared to just 1,750 wolves across the same area.

Wolves are top predators and can influence population dynamics, but they are just one of many factors. Elk numbers vary naturally from year to year and are also influenced by bad weather, disease, land development and hunting by humans. As a wildlife conservationist and a hunter, I believe we can accommodate a thriving wolf population and maintain sufficient game herds.

Wolves have also been unfairly demonized by many in the ranching industry. Wolf depredations account for only one percent of livestock losses; far more are lost to bad weather, disease or injury, and attacks by grizzlies, coyotes and even domestic dogs.

Still, there are many ways to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock. For 23 years we’ve been working with ranchers to help prevent livestock depredations, and this month marks the beginning of our annual proactive season. With modified animal husbandry practices such as putting up fencing, providing greater human presence and hazing, many producers have been able to dramatically reduce the number of sheep and cattle lost to wolves.

For example, in the Big Wood River Valley in central Idaho we’ve trained field technicians who spend the grazing season with three bands of sheep to ward off wolf attacks. So far, we’ve seen depredations decline over the three years of the project. In fact, last year the only losses occurred during one night when the technicians were not with the flock, suggesting the wolves know to keep their distance when humans are nearby.

Implementing smarter ranching practices is an important first step towards a more peaceful co-existence with wolves. The next step is to work together on a regional management plan that can ensure a healthy wolf population, protect livestock from depredations and maintain sufficient game for hunting. That is not an insurmountable task. I feel confident that by bringing level heads to the table, with the best available science in hand, we can come up with a workable solution that we can all live with.

Mike Leahy is director of conservation programs in the Rocky Mountain region for Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman, Montana.