How the gray wolf lost its endangered status — and how enviros helped

  • Angry protesters outside the Missoula, Montana, federal courthouse last June, when environmental lawyers were asking District Judge Donald Molloy to keep Northern Rockies wolves on the endangered species list.

    Kurt Wilson /Missoulian
  • An alpha female gray wolf shot by government aerial hunters in the Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho, in December 2009.

    Jim and Jame Dutcher/ National Geographic/Getty Images
  • Sheep rancher Bob Weber with five sheep killed by wolves at his Paradise Valley Ranch, near Livingston, Montana, in May 2005.

    Garrett Cheen/Livingston Enterprise/AP
  • Wolf watchers at Soda Butte Creek in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park.


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The pro-wolf lawsuit groups also shrugged off hunters' concerns, by repeatedly pointing out that the Northern Rockies overall have plenty of elk. (The latest totals: Idaho has about 100,000 elk, Montana has 117,880 and Wyoming 120,000.) It didn't seem to matter to them that wolves were taking a heavy toll in some locations. At the end of 2010, there were only 4,635 elk in the famous herd on Yellowstone's northern edge -- a radical decline from the 14,538 elk that were there in 2000. The elk herd on the West Fork of the Bitterroot, in western Montana, had only seven calves for every 100 cow elk, alarming biologists who say the herd won't survive without at least 25 calves per 100 cows. Idaho's long-declining Lolo elk herd was down to 2,000 from a record 16,000 in 1988. There were other factors involved, of course, including the subdivisions taking over Bitterroot winter range and the Lolo forests reclaiming meadows created by previous fires. But an adult wolf eats from 11 to 35 elk per year. To claim that hundreds of wolves were having little or no effect on big game numbers smacked of willful naiveté; it was like the oil and gas industry insisting that the decline of deer and antelope around Pinedale, Wyo., has nothing to do with the 1,400 gas wells drilled on that winter range.

As state wildlife managers try to recover elk herds in places like the Lolo, permits to hunt cow elk are eliminated, infuriating hunters who are accustomed to taking a year's supply of meat from those herds. Hunting families rely on that meat, and the permits mean even more to agencies like the Idaho Fish and Game Department, which relies almost entirely on the sale of hunting and fishing licenses to pay its staff and carry out habitat protection and other projects.

The lawsuit-filing groups also had a mixed relationship with the ranching community, at best. One group, Defenders of Wildlife, reached out with offers of compensation for livestock lost to wolves (a 23-year-long program that was recently disbanded when Congress began allocating money for losses). But mostly the lawsuit groups trotted out statistics showing that wolves were responsible for only a miniscule percentage of total livestock losses. (Coyotes, disease and bad weather are still the major killers.) In 2009, for instance, the region's wolves killed a confirmed 192 cows, 721 sheep, and 24 domestic dogs, and ranchers were compensated with $457,785 from the new federal Wolf Compensation and Prevention Program.

Still, ranchers bore most of the burden of living with wolves. George Edwards, coordinator for the Montana Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board, estimated that in 2009, losses to wolves in Montana alone ran as high as $1.5 million. Edwards, a Montana native who maintains an even-keeled discourse with both ranchers and wolf advocates, says it's often impossible to compensate ranchers for such losses. "We can pay for confirmed kills, but there's no way to compensate for calves that disappear, or the animals that never gain weight because they are being run, or that are injured running through fences trying to escape, and that's something I hear about all the time." Terri Tew, who with her husband, Tim, manages the LF Ranch near Augusta, Mont. -- known for its wildlife and tolerance of predators -- once told me, "We're not always sure why we should go through all this with losing calves and staying up all night, just so somebody from back East can come out here for a week and listen to a wolf howl." Kathy Konen of Dillon, Mont., probably felt the same way when she arrived in her family's sheep pasture -- on private land -- to find that wolves had killed 120 rams in one night in August 2009. Some ranchers lost priceless breeding stock they'd built up through generations of careful genetic management.

Western Watersheds Project director Jon Marvel -- famed for his uncompromising opposition to livestock grazing on public lands -- was involved in every major lawsuit to protect the wolves. Many ranchers wrongly assumed that Marvel spoke for all environmentalists, so they imagined the pro-wolf groups were out to get them. In turn, the pro-wolf groups fixated on the worst rhetoric in the anti-wolf camps. And there was plenty to choose from: Idaho's Republican Gov. Butch Otter often proclaimed his hatred for wolves, saying he wanted hunters to kill all but 100 of Idaho's wolves, and the Idaho Legislature shrieked that wolf recovery "has no basis in common sense, legitimate science or free-enterprise economics." Wyoming's "wolf management plan" sought to classify wolves as "predators" that could be shot and trapped like vermin in 88 percent of the state.

In their selective use of science, the pro-wolf groups cited research that indicated the region's wolf population in the early 2000s was too small to ensure long-term genetic diversity. When research began to indicate that the population had grown enough to be genetically sustainable, with wolves roaming between the core habitat areas -- a northern Montana wolf was shot chasing cattle in Challis, Idaho, two Yellowstone wolves were killed in Colorado, and so on -- the pro-wolf groups didn't highlight that. Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold, on behalf of several groups, sent a 35-page letter to the feds in 2007, airing a blockbuster demand: "2,500-5,000" wolves and more Northern Rockies wolf territory would be required to have a genetically healthy and sustainable population. Headlines across the West had a field day with those numbers. More hunters -- imagining 5,000 federally protected wolves eating 30 elk apiece, year after year -- began to find common ground with the anti-wolf extremists.

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