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 lawsuits wound up opening deep schisms between the pro-wolf groups and the hunters' groups that were formerly considered fellow conservationists. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, for instance, claims to have protected 5.9 million acres for wildlife, with guaranteed public access on over 600,000 acres of private land. But the Elk Foundation shifted to take a hard-line position against wolves, diverging even from the Wildlife Federation's moderate stance. The lawsuit-pushing groups also fueled the ultra-hard-line Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, which is based in Utah and has chapters in Idaho and Montana. Bill Merrill, president of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, says the endless wolf debates had an upside: "The eco-Nazis realized they were losing, and they were right. The tide has really shifted, with the ag and the sporting groups taking the power. The house of cards is really starting to crumble for these environmental groups. We're getting closer to the finish line."

Even worse, the pro-wolf lawsuit groups effectively distanced themselves from the state biologists and other professional wildlife managers that had, for the most part, been staunch traditional allies of protection. It was as if the more extreme environmentalists had decided that even the biologists who worked with the wolves on a daily basis were no longer sufficiently pure in their commitment. Steeped in the righteousness of their cause, the groups believed they could go it alone.

There were some practical problems with the initial wolf-hunting season. In Idaho, hunters were unable to do anything about the wolves that were impacting elk herds in the Lolo area; the wolves were simply too smart, and the country too heavily timbered and rugged, for hunters to kill them. In Montana, nine wolves were killed by hunters in the backcountry right at Yellowstone's northern boundary -- horrifying many wildlife lovers. The dead included the radio-collared alpha male of the Cottonwood Pack, along with his mate, known to researchers and wolf watchers as Number 527, and her daughter, known to wolf watchers as Dark Female. These animals had been celebrated in videos, articles and blogs. They were famous survivors, well-known for battling over territory and killing competing wolves. Laurie Lyman, a retired California schoolteacher who lives in Silver Gate, Mont., and blogs about wolves for the Natural Resources Defense Council, mourned, "These two females recently shot in the hunt (527 and 716) were two of the most interesting wolves I have ever watched in the last five years. What behavior we have seen. ..."

Yet most people involved in wolf recovery saw the 2009 wolf hunt as a beginning. The controversial federal control of wolves in Montana and Idaho was relinquished. The hunt generated revenue for further state management: Wolf-tag sales in Montana alone brought in over $325,000. The wholesale slaughter predicted by pro-wolf groups did not occur. Veteran Yellowstone National Park biologist Doug Smith, whose own research was severely affected by the killing of the collared wolves of the Cottonwood Pack, recognized the inevitability of the hunt. "I thought they did a good job with it. It was very controlled. I respectfully disagree with those people who feel that the long-term survival of the wolf is enhanced by protecting them from hunting."

Extremism has its rewards. For politicians like Gov. Otter, anger over wolf recovery has been a sure-fire vote-getter. Some hard-line hunters' groups gained members and clout as the anti-wolf rhetoric soared, just as photos of gamboling wolf pups combined with hyperbolic warnings about their impending slaughter have generated an increase of members, money and energy for some environmental groups. For many of the major players, there's been no incentive to end the conflict. Montana Wildlife Federation's Ben Lamb, who's worked on the wolf issue for eight years, says, "If this ever gets settled, then the groups that want wolves everywhere, and the people who want every wolf removed from the Lower 48, they'll both have to do something else to get their money. The more broken the policy is, the more money flows to both sides."

In August 2010, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who had refused to halt the hunting season, ruled in favor of the pro-wolf groups on a technical aspect of the law, saying that whether or not the wolf population was recovered in Montana and Idaho, Wyoming still lacked a federally approved plan, and the Endangered Species Act does not permit a species to be delisted on the basis of state boundaries. The region's wolf population -- an estimated 1,706 individuals in 242 packs, with 115 breeding pairs -- was returned to federal control, and a lot more people were convinced that the wolf advocates were being unreasonable. Shortly -- like a chess player who moves the queen into a fatal position -- most of the lawsuit-filing groups realized they'd made a mistake.

As a horde of Western politicians harnessed the anti-wolf fury, determined to get Congress to intervene, 10 of the groups involved in the fatal lawsuit panicked. Suddenly, they sought to compromise, offering a "settlement" that resembled the partial delisting they had previously sued against. There was no chance that Judge Molloy would accept the settlement, because it still enforced the federal law differently in different states and four of the plaintiffs refused to sign it. It was political theater, and Molloy rejected it on April 9.

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