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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Within a few days, Congress approved a bipartisan measure -- a rider attached to a budget bill with no real debate -- that more or less carried out the previous Bush and Obama plans to delist wolf populations in Montana, Idaho, and portions of Utah, Washington and Oregon, while maintaining federal control in Wyoming. The measure also said that the decision cannot be challenged by lawsuits. President Obama signed it, and it was finalized in the Federal Register May 5. Defenders of Wildlife warns: "This unprecedented action marks the first time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that protections for a specific species will be revoked by Congress. (It) paves the way for other bills that undermine the scientific principles of the Endangered Species Act and put countless other species at risk at the whim of politicians."

The rider's key sponsor was Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a first-term Democrat who took the seat in 2006 from a Republican incumbent by only a few thousand votes. Tester, who's also pushing a Montana wilderness compromise bill that hasn't made it through Congress (it's opposed by both left- and right-wingers), says his wolf measure "is a common-sense approach that does not damage the ESA. ... It has the support of all the moderate elements, and it has the support of the wildlife professionals. It's good for wildlife and livestock, and in the long run, it's good for the wolves, too. If we can get the information out, people will understand that this was by far the best way to handle this situation."

The wolf issue has become a defining factor in one of the nation's hottest Senate races: In Tester's run for re-election in 2012, he's facing off against Denny Rehberg, a popular Republican rancher and developer who now holds Montana's sole seat in the House of Representatives. Rehberg has campaigned fiercely against wolves and pretty much everything else environmentalists support.

Tester needs a noteworthy accomplishment to get re-elected at a time when Montana voters are trending hard right, and Democratic Party national leaders need Tester to get re-elected, to help them maintain their slim majority in the Senate. They were eager to help Tester pass his wolf measure, framing it as a moderate solution compared to a doctrinaire, identity-politics Republican anti-wolf bill sponsored by Rehberg (who wants to let Wyoming treat wolves as vermin and end all protection for the Southwest's small, fragile population of Mexican wolves). According to Tester, "The Rehberg bill was too extreme, and everybody knew that. It was dead on arrival."

We're in new territory now. There's uncertainty over how the empowered state governments will manage the Northern Rockies wolves, as well as over how much traction the various breeds of conservationists will have in the future. Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks says it will likely allow hunters to kill up to 220 of the wolves in the state this year. More Montana wolves will be killed by the federal shooters (who'll still target wolves that prey on livestock), as well as by illegal shooters and cars and so on. By the end of the year, government biologists predict, Montana will still have about 400 wolves, including the new generation of pups. In Idaho, the Legislature and Gov. Otter, indulging in more identity politics, recently declared ... a wolf "disaster emergency" that would allow increased wolf killing, possibly including aerial gunning. But Jon Marvel, the head of Western Watersheds, who refused to sign the "settlement" and condemns Tester's measure, says: "We think that Montana will establish (somewhat) moderate (wolf-hunting) seasons, and that Idaho may try to eliminate wolves in some specific areas, but that, absent the use of poison baits, wolves will survive in the backcountry even with continuous efforts to eliminate them."

Mike Clark of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says that "the battle over the ESA listing" of Northern Rockies wolves "is over. But the way they are managed will remain very much in play. I think the politicians will eventually step aside, or get tired, and the wildlife professionals will still be there. If it starts looking like there will be a wholesale slaughter, they won't go along with that. And the American people will rise up and stop it, too. I think there's going to be trouble, but the wolves will survive, and we'll find new ways to protect them."

There's also new uncertainty about applying the Endangered Species Act to any other species. Already there's a bill in Congress that would strip protections for the only fly on the endangered list. Sponsored by California Rep. Joe Baca, D, it would let developers occupy the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly's habitat in his district. We'll see more politicking around individual species -- as well as renewed efforts to "reform" the law itself. Reform might be a good idea in some respects, but those who talk most about it just want to gut the law entirely.

The lawsuits on behalf of the Northern Rockies wolves have had one undeniably good result: They kept maximum protections in place for as long as possible and gave the wolf population time to increase to today's levels. And that might prove to be a crucial factor in the long-term success of their recovery.

Meanwhile, three Western environmental groups -- Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Clearwater and WildEarth Guardians -- are already suing the feds over the May 5 delisting of most Northern Rockies wolves, charging that it's unconstitutional for Congress to override a judge's ruling. A fourth group that also thrives in court, the Center for Biological Diversity, has filed a separate lawsuit along the same lines.

Hal Herring, based in Augusta, Mont., has written about environmental issues for the past 14 years for HCN and a range of other publications including The Economist and Atlantic Monthly. He’s a contributing editor for Field and Stream magazine.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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