Be careful what you wish for the wolves

  • Bruce Weide photo
  • CAN IT STAY? Gray wolf

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler photo

Half a century ago, Yellowstone's last native wolf died with its leg clamped in the jaws of a trap. As a nation, we encouraged the extermination of wolves. But time passed and attitudes changed. Three years ago, wolves were returned to Yellowstone and central Idaho, initiating history's most popular and successful reintroduction of an endangered species. Then last December, U.S. District Court Judge William Downes ordered the wolves removed, pending appeal (HCN, 1/19/98).

Should the appeal fail, at least 180 wolves and their young will die. Canada isn't likely to take their expatriated wolves back, but if they did, returning wolves would find their territories inhabited by new wolves that would kill them. And placing 180 wild wolves in captivity, if it were financially and logistically possible, would consign them to a cruel fate "wild adult wolves do not adapt to life behind bars.

The comeback canids

The notion of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho began in earnest during the late '70s and immediately met fierce opposition. As a decade inflamed by impassioned hyperbole passed, some environmentalists began to think that allowing ranchers to protect their animals might not just defuse political opposition, but might also protect reintroduced wolves by lessening reasons to "shoot, shovel and shut up."

The major issue during negotiations concerned designating reintroduced wolves as a nonessential experimental population under 10(j). That meant ranchers could, in certain circumstances: 1) kill wolves caught killing cattle on private land; 2) chase wolves away from their livestock; and 3) be issued a permit to kill a depredating wolf on public land.

Ranchers worried that immediately following reintroduction, environmentalists would push for full Endangered Species Act protection, which would revoke the ranchers' freedom to deal with wolves that killed livestock. The pro-wolf team said, "Trust us." And biologists assured environmentalists that wolves did not need the full protection to prosper.

As opponents closed in on an agreement, a controversy surfaced about protection for dispersers "the individual wolves that periodically make their way from northwestern Montana into central Idaho.

Some of the pro-wolf contingent argued that since you can't distinguish a wolf walking down from Canada from an experimental wolf trucked in by the government, 10(j) would jeopardize full ESA protection for a disperser. Others argued that just because you see a wolf in an area doesn't mean that you've got wolves there - you need breeding. We've spotted humans on the moon but that doesn't mean people inhabit the place.

The lawsuits

During the early winter of 1994, while Canadian wolves were being captured for shipping to the United States, the Wyoming Farm Bureau sued the federal government, citing the economic hardship that would follow reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho.

As the crated wolves awaited their journey south, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund (formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, but not affiliated with the Sierra Club), sued the federal government on behalf of the National Audubon Society, the Predator Project in Montana and Sinapu in Colorado.

Earthjustice maintained that reintroduction in central Idaho under 10(j) jeopardized protection for naturally occurring wolves. Since central Idaho wasn't inhabited by a "population" of wolves, just the occasional loner, numerous conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and its Wolf Fund, begged Earthjustice to drop their suit, fearing several disastrous outcomes, including the worst-case scenario that occurred three years later. Earthjustice refused, and the case went forward, with Earthjustice teamed in the courtroom, against its will, with the Farm Bureau. Meanwhile, the wolves were brought to the Northern Rockies and released.

Wolves at last

"If we have learned anything, it is that the best way to ensure continued wolf survival is, ironically enough, not to protect wolves completely. If we carefully regulate wolf populations instead of overprotecting them, we can prevent a second wave of wolf hysteria, a backlash that could lead once again to persecution."  - David Mech, biologist

The reintroduced wolves fared well, and birth rates greatly exceeded deaths. In fact, contrary to Earthjustice and Audubon's stance that 10(j) amounted to an open season on wolves, only two reintroduced wolves have been killed by private citizens under 10(j) provisions.

Then, on Dec. 12, 1997, nearly three years after the first reintroduced wolves touched ground, Judge Downes upheld the Farm Bureau's and Earthjustice's contention that the Fish and Wildlife Service "violated 10(j) by introducing a population of an endangered species within that species' current range."

Writing with "the utmost reluctance," Judge Downes found the Fish and Wildlife Service's reintroduction efforts unlawful. He ordered the wolves and their offspring removed.

The appeal by National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife and the federal government could reverse Downes. And that reversal could be appealed to the Supreme Court, so many years may pass before a final decision.

Potential repercussions

For the moment, the Farm Bureau is thrilled with Judge Downes' decision. However, as Judge Downes warned the Farm Bureau in his judgment, "Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it." And what the bureau might get is a huge beef boycott when Americans see their beloved wolves hauled out of Yellowstone.

What the Farm Bureau may also get are wolves that ranchers can't legally shoot or shoo away from their livestock. Any animals that can't be positively identified as experimental will be released and given full endangered species protection.

As Judge Downes wrote, "It is ironic that as a result of the inability to implement an experimental population in these areas, no flexibility in ESA protections will be available to those individuals economically affected by natural wolf recovery."

But environmentalists could also lose, even if some protected wolves do remain in and around Yellowstone. Without the flexibility allowed in managing an experimental population, forget about seeing wolves reintroduced to northern Maine, the Adirondacks or anywhere there's evidence of one naturally occurring wolf - kiss the dream goodbye.

Bruce Weide, a writer and storyteller, and Pat Tucker, a wildlife biologist, live in Hamilton, Mont., but are on the road 200 days a year as part of their ambassador wolf program. They visit schools and community groups to talk about wolf recovery in the West; they always bring a wolf to make the issue come alive. The couple's nonprofit group, Wild Sentry, can be reached at Box 172, Hamilton, MT 59840.

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