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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State wildlife agencies in Montana and Idaho were eager to take control of wolf management, and all three presidential administrations tried to oblige them. With federal approval of their plans, both states planned wolf-hunting seasons for the fall of 2009, Montana establishing a quota of 75, and Idaho a quota of 220. Thirteen environmental groups immediately sought an injunction to stop any wolf hunts. By the summer of 2009, when all this was happening, the wolf population had increased to around 1,645, with 95 breeding pairs. For many wolf advocates who followed the animals' lives through blogs, or films, or by being among the estimated 100,000 wildlife enthusiasts who came to Yellowstone every year to watch the wolves, it was unthinkable that the states would stage a wolf hunt. There seemed to be no acceptable number of wolves that hunters could take. The outcry against the hunt rose to a melodramatic intensity in pro-wolf groups' action alerts, publications and websites.

The wolf hunt was far more vigorously opposed than the work of federal shooters, who killed 270 Northern Rockies wolves in 2009 alone. There was a reason for that: Federal shooters target only wolves involved in livestock conflicts, while public hunting, even with quotas in specific areas, is an imprecise and disruptive killing tool. But to many Westerners it looked like more hypocrisy. Even when the pro-wolf groups were suing the federal government, they still trusted federal wolf-shooters more than they trusted local hunters or their own state governments.

It was a destructive cycle: The lawsuits inspired increasing anti-wolf fury; environmentalists responded with yet more lawsuits.

In 2008, Idaho's Legislature and Gov. Otter passed a law making it easier for ranchers and pet owners to kill wolves. In December of that year, a blog post by the Natural Resources Defense Council's Louisa Willcox, of Livingston, Mont., treated the pro-wolf lawsuits as if they were Christmas presents: "Let us hope that these capable attorneys can bring light and hope to Northern Rockies wolves -- just as wolves, in return, remind us how to behave as family: hunting together, playing, teaching the young, and surviving the tough times, together.

Ho-Ho-Ho -- or perhaps howl-howl-howl!"

The end result of exchanges like that, as Defenders of Wildlife's veteran Idaho wolf specialist Suzanne Stone said recently, was that "nobody was talking to each other anymore."

In mid-2009, the National Wildlife Federation decided that fighting in court for more wolves was unnecessary and counterproductive. The NWF claims to have almost 4 million members -- mostly hook-and-bullet types -- and 46 affiliated state-level groups. Asked why the group abandoned the lawsuit strategy in 2009, NWF's Northern Rockies regional director Tom France of Missoula, Mont., says simply, "Because the wolf population was recovered." France, who is also an NWF attorney, says he is weary of the battle and the animosity it has caused between groups that are supposed to work together as advocates for wildlife. "The details were less important than moving forward and getting good management on the ground," says France, who continues to work on related issues, especially a long-term effort that has purchased and retired grazing leases on some 550,000 acres of national forest lands where wolves and grizzly bears are in frequent conflict with cattle.

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