Governmental Disdain for Wolves

Ever since wolves were relisted as an Endangered Species by Judge Molloy of Montana there has been a persistent drone of editorial opinion, political grandstanding, and accusations made about and against wolf/Endangered Species Act (ESA) advocates.


Just recently, a piece was written that claimed wolf advocates “blew it” by fighting too long and too hard to protect the integrity of the ESA via fighting to keep protections for wolves. It went on to say that wolf advocates should have made an offer to settle rather than fight for the integrity of the ESA and now they are responsible for giving their opponents ammunition to threaten the integrity of the ESA.

The fact of the matter is that wolf advocate plaintiffs have been in settlement discussions with defendants, sadly enough, even after the court victory re-instating protections for wolves. It’s been wolf-opponents such as representatives of the state of Idaho that have declined to participate, refusing to even send anyone to these discussions. So who’s being too strident and why?

Furthermore, any settlement agreement must be reviewed by the public which means that it is an action that could be litigated by any number of groups for various reasons.

You can read about what is publicly known about the discussions here and here and here. Be sure to read both pages.

Wolf conservationists have been also accused of “moving the goal posts” by demanding that all the delisting criteria for the program be met. Instead the claim has been the only required goal was reaching a minimum 300 wolves among all three states, but even this number was dictated by the government. It wasn’t set by some deal conservationists made.

These criteria are detailed in the USFWS wolf recovery plan which requires, in part, that wolves achieve at least 10 breeding pairs in each of the three states and that each of the three states produce wolf management plans that are acceptable to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The first goal laid out as the minimum requirement for “recovery” was met early on but Wyoming stands apart from the other two states by demanding that their plan allow anyone, for any reason, to kill any wolf by any means in any part of 80% of the state outside the National Parks and wilderness areas in the northwest corner of the state.

Yes, the wildlife management agencies of Idaho and Montana have committed to maintaining wolves at levels higher than 100 wolves in their states, but these commitments are hardly secure. . . far from it. The state management plans were not written by these wildlife management agencies. They were written by the legislatures of their respective states. The Idaho and Montana legislature have made it clear they are not shy about demanding the state wildlife agencies manage only for the minimum population levels that they committed to in their plans. Just such an effort was made in the last Idaho legislative session. It was put on hold because the wolf delisting was still being litigated. Such a resolution could be made more powerful by being turned into a bill, which would likely pass now that wolves have been relisted. Legislators have made a point of saying as much in private conversations with wolf advocates and they are on record in the 2001 HOUSE JOINT MEMORIAL NO. 5demanding that “wolf recovery efforts in Idaho be discontinued immediately, and wolves be removed by whatever means necessary.” It’s not a matter of if they’ll do it, but when.

We are told that wolf advocates made a “deal” that wolves would be delisted once the minimum population goals of 10 breeding pairs for three consecutive years in each state was met. Not so. What group set this number or made a deal? Where is it written? “Deals” such as this could conceivably been made by certain unrepresentative individuals, but the ESA and NEPA are clear, and ,under these laws, decisions such as these have to be made using the best available science. They cannot be made based on a whim and the political flavor of the day. Currently the best available science indicates that thousands of individuals are required to maintain genetic and population viability.

Wolf advocates have been accused of not compromising on wolf management issues, but many forget the biggest compromise made by wolf advocates and many, many others made since. That compromise, seen as a mistake by some and not by others, was the reintroduction itself. There were wolves in the Northern Rockies before the reintroduction. These wolves had full protection under the ESA. There were not classified as an “experimental and non-essential population.” They could have slowly reestablished populations in Idaho, and eventually Yellowstone, on their own but with much less genetic diversity and over a longer period of time. That also means that they could not have been killed for any reason other than protection of human life. Most wolf advocates compromised on this issue by allowing the USFWS to reintroduce wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park as an experimental, non-essential population.

Furthermore, at the time of the reintroduction, as Peter Steinhart wrote in his 1995 book The Company of Wolves, even Republican Idaho Senator James McClure, seeing the writing on the wall, supported reintroduction because it would allow ranchers the ability to kill wolves in defense of livestock.

“….Senator James McClure of Idaho introduced a bill calling for the removal of wolves from the endangered-species list, and subsequent reintroduction into Yellowstone. In effect, he was conceding that wolves were inevitable, and that the ranchers would be wise to compromise in order to protect their ability to deal with depredations. Congress, however, rejected McClure’s bill as an attempt to circumvent the Endangered Species Act, and instead called for the preparation of an environmental impact statement for wolf reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park. That amounted to tentative approval of reintroduction.”

Since the reintroduction over 1,200 compromises have been begrudgingly made in the three states to avenge livestock depredation by wolves.

Wolf advocates also compromised by giving support to monetary compensation for livestock losses in hopes that it would gain tolerance. After originally supporting it, in our opinion, this turned out to be a farce — it never accomplished its original goal of gaining tolerance amongst those who were compensated. Worse, it created a moral hazard which allowed ranchers to continue feeling a sense of entitlement without changing any of their behavior.

While both sides have endured threats over this issue wolf advocates have also endured threats to their physical well being from those with a different opinion brandishing weapons and have been physically assaulted. They have been investigated by the FBI for trying to document the actions of Wildlife Services. They have been made to jump through hoops just to have simple questions answered about what is happening on the ground.

Anti-wolf forces have perpetuated myths about “vicious Canadian wolves” when not a single wolf scientist believes such as sub-species of wolf exists. They make wild claims about 200 pound wolves when they are really only around 100 pounds.

Wildlife Services, the agency which conducts livestock depredation investigations for the various states and conducts wolf controls by various means including gunning them down from helicopters, has been lawless with regard to Freedom of Information Act requests made by many groups and has not responded to or fulfilled its duty to provide the public with information about its management activities or spending.

The Idaho Fish and Game, as well, has issued a directive to its employees that they should not discuss any wolf management activities over email, but rather over the phone. Furthermore, they can’t even see fit to update their monthly wolf news update page. Right now, it hasn’t been updated since June.

Yes, wolf advocates are worried, but that worry is well founded. We are worried that the states will move forward with their goals of reducing wolf populations to the minimum they define in their legislative management plans if wolves are again delisted under their plans. We are worried that a strident faction in Congress will gut the ESA using a “midnight amendment,” but that does not mean that wolf advocates should gut the ESA themselves nor hunker down and apologize for winning in U.S. court. The ruling by Judge Molloy was not decided on a technicality as Cal Groen, Director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and others would have you believe, it was won on a simple reading of one of the most popular environmental laws ever. The USFWS acted arbitrarily when they used state lines to delist wolves rather than biologically meaningful lines and the judge saw that.

It’s not as if we have been dealing with a rational opposition when you consider all of these facts. In fact, the future of wolf recovery is not secure even without legislative intervention. The blatant disdain for wolves by those who will direct how the agencies maintain a secure future for wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, among other states is obvious to those who are paying attention.

So, I ask you, who hasn’t compromised? And who isn’t following agreements to manage wildlife using the best available science? Should the country let the recent bills submitted by Danny Rehberg, Mike Crapo, and Jim Risch, Max Baucus, Jon Tester and rank outsiders like Chet Edwards of Texas dictate how the ESA is implemented thus gutting the ESA? Have the advocates of the ESA lost because they refuse to gut the ESA themselves?

Ken Cole and Brian Ertz work for the Western Watersheds Project. Ralph Maughan edits the excellent Wildlife News website.