Who's afraid of the big, bad wolf?


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

As darkness blanketed the land, two cunning predators made their move. Their thirst for blood was intense and, when the opportunity presented itself, they sunk their canines into the soft underbelly of their prey. This eager hunting pair--Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID)--have doggedly pursued gray wolves all the way to the capitol, where they slyly inserted language removing endangered species protections for the animals in their home states, into the 11th-hour budget bill pending before Congress.

That announcement came just prior to news on Saturday that a federal judge in Montana tossed a proposed settlement between 10 conservation groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) which would have removed protection from gray wolves in Idaho and Montana but allowed for close monitoring of those populations. It was an odd agreement, seeing as how the groups had already won the argument, but the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and others claimed the move was the “lesser of two evils,” hoping that the compromise would sway Tester and Simpson to abandon their personal wolf hunt.

The proposal clearly did little to derail Western lawmakers, and served as a slap in the face to Judge Donald Molloy, who sided with the groups last year and reinstated Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains. In his decision this weekend, he maintained that the court lacks authority to allow state management of a federally-endangered species. “Congress has clearly determined that animals on the ESA must be protected as such,” he said. The court could not “exercise its discretion to allow what Congress forbids.”

Jay Tutchton, an attorney at WildEarth Guardians (who was acting on his own to support the plaintiffs who did not sign onto the failed settlement), was obviously pleased. “The law should not bend to political calculations or practical convenience, especially if that would require the court to trample on the rights of non-settling parties,” he said, “I think the judge's reading of the ESA and the obligations it imposes on him is entirely accurate.”

Tutchton calls the actions of Tester/Simpson “cowardly” because slipping wolves into a ‘must have’ budget bill pre-empts the legislation from being open to full public scrutiny, and from being argued on its own merits. “Sadly, that seems to be how important policy decisions are being made in Congress these days--in closed door negotiations as opposed to public debate,” he says.

It’s not hard to understand why Simpson and Tester--de facto predators in politician’s skin--have been so focused on attacking wolves--they’re locked in a ‘I hate wolves more than you’ battle in the West that may determine whether or not they’re reelected. But, the more I’ve dug to expose the roots of the ‘Kill the wolves!’ vs. ‘Save the wolves!’ fight, the more dubious I’ve become of those who want desperately to do away with wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Conventional arguments become spurious statements when scrutinized in the light of day:

1) Wolves are killing huge numbers of livestock

In Montana, from 1995 to 2007, wolves killed an average 67 livestock animals (cattle, sheep, llamas, goats and horses) per year. Last year, 97 cows/calves were killed, out of 2.5 million head of cattle in the state.

In Idaho, in 2009, wolves killed 90 cows/calves and 344 sheep. The number of sheep seems high, until you consider that sheep producers reported losing 56,000 animals that year for reasons other than predators, such as disease and weather. They also reported losing another 18,800 animals to all predators, mostly coyotes. Eagles were blamed for another 600 sheep deaths. If economics was a real argument, why not target the more destructive hunters--grizzlies, eagles, foxes and coyotes?

Now, I’ve seen a wolf tear out the guts of an animal and it’s not pleasant, but I’ve also seen hamburgers. The loss of a negligent amount of livestock to wolves seems like the price of doing this kind of business.

2) Ranchers’ livelihoods are threatened by wolves

I was surprised to learn that when a wolf kills livestock, ranchers are reimbursed for that take. In 2009, in Montana, ranchers were paid roughly $142,000 for 369 losses to wolves. That money is supposed to be used, in part, to minimize wolf interaction with livestock (better patrolling by humans, guard dogs, electric fences, etc.) but there was little evidence of that.

Besides, where is it written in the constitution that ranchers are entitled to a predator-free environment? Isn’t ranching an inherently risky business? With subsidies and reimbursement, the image of the rough-hewn cowboy is morphing in one of him happily holding hands with the federal government.

3) Ranchers and hunters are worried about elk depredation

The Bureau of Land Management manages livestock grazing on 157 million acres in the west. Ranchers pay a price per head of cattle for that right--$1.35 to be precise, a rate which has held steady over the past 50 years. That’s a lot of public land being chowed down on by domestic animals for a pittance (grazing on private land costs over $19 per head).

Before ranchers and the feds shook hands on grazing domestic animals on public lands, ungulates used to forage there and wolves hunted them. Elk are less likely to graze on land overrun with cows. If ranchers truly cared about the fate of elk, which are on the decline in some parts of the Northern Rocky Mountains (though in recent years their numbers were unsustainably high, according to biologists and annoyingly high, according to some ranchers even), they might think to return some of that land to the wild.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), “In Montana, elk numbers in some areas have declined, due in part to wolf predation. Yet in other areas where wolves and elk interact, elk numbers are stable or increasing. Habitat, weather patterns, human hunting, the presence of other large predators in the same area, and the presence of livestock seasonally or year round are important factors, too."

As for the hunters who’ve been moaning about wolves putting the kibosh on their sport, “One study showed that when wolves are in the local area, elk spend less time in open areas and more time in forested areas. Hunters may need to adjust their strategies,” says FWP. In other words: hunters, man up.

4) Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves have recovered

The total number of wolves (roughly 1,600 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) is perhaps the least important element of so-called recovery. In it’s “Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan,” published in 1987, the FWS defined recovery as maintaining a minimum of 10 breeding pairs of wolves per recovery area (Northwest Montana, Central Idaho and Yellowstone) for three successive years. This benchmark has been reached if breeding partners are combined across the region, but has not yet been reached per recovery area. While the Greater Yellowstone Area has had as many as 31 breeding pairs in past years, that number dropped to six in 2008. The number of breeding pairs in Northwest Montana dropped as low as four in 2003.

Removing ESA protections from wolves while their populations and, more specifically, the number of breeding pairs is in such great flux, would be shortsighted.

After debunking the common arguments for delisting wolves, the question still remains, why are some people so passionate about killing them?

If economics has little to do with it, we’re left with emotion. It helps to look back 100 years, when there was a full-scale campaign to exterminate wolves; they were shot, poisoned, even fed glass. Generations of seemingly austere westerners dedicated themselves to brutally disbanding the aura of myth and fear that surrounded the wolf. (The three little pigs, after all, sang “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and celebrated when their foe burned up in the fireplace.)

But, as a society, we seemed to have turned a corner when the recovery plan was established. At the time, the FWS said, “In the last 40 years, after centuries of fantasy and superstition, wildlife research has yielded a new picture of the wolf as a social creature and an important member of natural ecosystems. Surveys of public attitudes…showed broad support…for protection and conservation of the wolf.”

Yet we now face the most comprehensive plan to extirpate wolves. Have no doubt, this secret legislation sponsored by Tester and Simpson will do a lot of damage -- it will likely allow wolf hunting and prevent courts from reversing Congressional action. The results could be devastating, and all because some politicians and ranchers can’t get over their childish fears.

As Jay Tutchton puts it, “The buck now rests with Obama–does he want to be the one to sign the death warrant for hundreds of wolves (and set back or completely foreclose true wolf recovery)?” A final vote on the budget bill is expected this week.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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