Wolves still need our protection

As a society, how far are we willing to go and what are we willing to sacrifice to preserve the wild?

 

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 66 gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and adjacent wilderness areas in Idaho back in 1995-’96, conservationists and ranchers squared off across a fence and hurled insults at each other for months.

By then, both sides had had plenty of practice in the art of verbal warfare from previous battles over buffalo harvests and the ever-popular “elk shoots,” wherein surplus animals were herded by helicopters into a funnel of “hunters,” who thinned the herd back to manageable numbers in a hail of lead.  To call that a hunt would be akin to calling Wounded Knee a fair fight.  I never met anyone who participated in one of those culling events who wasn't sickened by the slaughter.

When wolves began again to hunt prey in Yellowstone, many ranchers argued that Canis lupus would soon be lining up at their livestock operations like teenagers at a takeout window.  Here, for the taking, was an endless supply of Happy Meals.

As mitigation for those meals, the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife has spent $1.5 million (and counting) since 1987 compensating ranchers for their losses -- though this has failed to mollify ranchers.

The argument for restoring wolves, however, was unassailable. When the last wolf was finally killed in Yellowstone back in 1926, the elk population soared and the ecosystem fell out of balance. The park's riparian areas and aspen stands were devastated by the 8,000-plus elk herds, and an inventory of the park's wildlife in the early 1970s failed to turn up more than a handful of deer. These, and dozens of other critters, could not compete with the elk.

By the mid-1990s, alarmed biologists told Congress that something had to be done. According to William J. Ripple, a leading researcher on the effect of wolves on the Yellowstone ecosystem who is based at the University of Oregon, bringing back wolves, the alpha predators, was the right move.

Since 1996, Yellowstone’s elk population has been cut by two-thirds. The number of beaver and birds has increased, along with deer and red foxes, and the aspen and riparian areas once devastated by overgrazing are making a slow but steady recovery.

But Ripple cautions: "We think this is just the start of the restoration process.  We have to sit back and wait for the ecosystem to continue responding.  We call this 'passive restoration,' because the ecosystem, with the wolf as a key component at the apex of the predator pyramid, is only now emerging.  The aspens, the berry-bearing bushes, the riparian areas, they all seem to be responding, but we went 70 years without the wolves in Yellowstone. … It's much too early to draw conclusions."

For those and many other reasons, the federal government’s decision this summer to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list was not roundly applauded. Though Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, declared the decision to be "the next step forward in wolf conservation," many questioned its wisdom.  Anticipating the inevitable storm of controversy, the agency invited the public to weigh in on whether wolves should be removed from the endangered species list. The deadline for comments is Sept. 11.

When Congress removed the Endangered Species Act protections from the gray wolf in 2011, it turned wolf recovery projects over to the states.  In minutes, Idaho legalized the hunting of wolves.  In two years, 1,175 wolves have been killed by hunters, including 10 “research wolves” that wandered out of protected zones in Yellowstone National Park.

Battles over restoring and protecting salmon and other endangered species have shown -- time and again -- that politicians can be quick to sacrifice science to political self-interest.  At the very least, many conservationists argue that wolves need a large “no-hunting” buffer around Yellowstone Park.

"If the packs are persecuted,” Ripple asks, “what will happen to the social structure of those remaining?  Do they still provide an ecologically beneficial function? We don't know. This research is in its infancy. We need to err on the side of caution until we learn more about the role of the wolf in these ecosystems."

The basic question remains: As a society, how far are we willing to go and what are we willing to sacrifice to preserve the wild?

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a writer in Corvallis, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.