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.

 

Augusta, Montana
In September of 1995, I worked on a trail-building crew along the edge of Little Blackfoot Meadows, in the Helena National Forest near Elliston, Mont. It was a big piece of roadless country, mostly lodgepole pines over a lush carpet of whortleberry bushes. The meadows were a sunburnt dun color, and the willows along the braids of the marshy creek glowed deep yellow from frost. In the center of a wide meadow, we noticed what I first thought was a small herd of horses. As the animals moved, their leggy, preposterous gait revealed them to be moose, huddled together, their long heads up and watching. We wondered why they were all bunched up like that. That night, the weather shifted, and the next morning, on a bench above the meadows, two sets of big dog-like tracks showed in the skiff of snow. "Wolves," my boss said. "That's why those moose were acting like they were." I had never seen wolf tracks before. Kneeling to study them, I imagined the pair of wild rovers -- from who knows where, maybe Canada or Glacier National Park -- following ancient paths through the people-less valley. I liked being where the wolves were, in a place where so many of the region's original living components survived. We all did.

No one could have predicted back then that the Northern Rockies wolves -- the 66 introduced into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995 and 1996, plus a few that crossed the Canadian border and naturally re-colonized -- would become one of the most successful projects of the Endangered Species Act. Wolves were among the first species sheltered by the 1973 law, and in the years since the reintroduction, their numbers have risen to more than five times the initial goal of 300 individuals and 30 breeding pairs. The success of the reintroduction has made for some excellent, fractious politics. It's also revealed the weaknesses in the strategy of the environmentalists who have used continuous lawsuits to protect wolves.

From the beginning, it was clear that the resurgent wolf population would need at least the threat of legal action to survive. Many of the West's cattle and sheep ranchers and hunters still hail the extermination of the region's original wolves (the last were slaughtered in a Yellowstone den in 1926) as the best way to deal with top-level predators that compete with human beings. Yet the pro-wolf lawsuits have ended in a colossal strategic failure: Congress has just brushed them aside and passed a bipartisan measure that strips Endangered Species Act protections from most Northern Rockies wolves, effective May 5. Suddenly, the whole Endangered Species Act looks vulnerable to more attacks from the law's traditional enemies as well as a surge of new ones. There are lessons we can pull from the apparent ruins.

The thinking of the environmental groups that persisted in filing lawsuits can be summed up: They didn't trust the Clinton administration to manage wolves, then they didn't trust the George W. Bush administration, and then they didn't trust the Obama administration. Most of all they didn't trust the state governments, hunters and ranchers. They believed they could force people to tolerate wolves and refused to acknowledge the other side's point of view -- or at least, the courtroom arenas didn't allow them to acknowledge the other side. They ignored the public's perceptions of their actions, and they didn't see the risk of filing one lawsuit too many.

In April of 2003, for instance, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to relax protections somewhat by downlisting wolves from "endangered" to "threatened" in nine Western states, 17 environmental groups filed suit, claiming that the decision was not "based on the best available science." The wolf population in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho at the time was estimated at 663, more than twice the original goal. Mike Clark, head of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, one of the groups in the lawsuit, told me recently that the goal of 300 wolves was "just a number selected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. There was never any discussion of whether that was enough to have a sustainable population, and it was certainly never set in stone." But many Westerners didn't know that the feds' voluminous wolf plans contained a few sentences saying the goal might be adjusted to take into account ongoing research. There was enough science and legal argument on the environmentalists' side that U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in Oregon ruled in their favor, invoking the standard lawsuit language that the downlisting was "arbitrary and capricious."

It seemed like a victory, but it delayed federal efforts to hand wolf management over to the state governments. During the next three years, as wolf numbers rose, science took a back seat to the fury over the notion that the federal government -- the Inland West's favorite whipping boy, especially in rural areas -- was imposing the wolves on hunters and ranchers, on behalf of anti-hunting, anti-ranching environmentalists. That perception wasn't completely accurate, but like the strongest propaganda, it felt true enough to have an impact.

The lawsuit-oriented groups shrugged off any experts who disagreed with their own experts -- including Valerius Geist, a widely respected researcher and author who is also a professor emeritus of wildlife biology at the University of Alberta in Calgary. Geist reveres the North American Model of Conservation, a concept dating back to 1842 that prevents private ownership of wildlife while allowing hunting and fishing within the boundaries of laws set, mostly, by the states. It has been, arguably, the most effective wildlife conservation and restoration model in the world. Geist told me in 2000, while I was researching a story for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle magazine, that wolf reintroduction was "a bad idea. ... Environmentalists have an idealistic vision that there is a balance of nature that can be achieved. What you will actually see is quite a depletion in your big-game (herds)." Geist thinks that "those dickybird fellows" -- as he calls most environmentalists -- do not really care whether the wolves reduce opportunity for big-game hunters, even though the special taxes hunters pay on firearms and their hunting-license fees basically paid for restoring the elk that allowed the wolf recovery: "The enviros have taken a free ride on the money provided by hunters, and they have never paid their share of wildlife costs."

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