Off the List

Gray wolves have made a remarkable comeback in the Northern Rockies. But is the celebration premature?

By Scott Kirkwood

By the 1930s, gray wolves had vanished from the Northern Rockies, after decades of being trapped, shot, and poisoned with a vigor generally reserved for the last few pages of a fairy tale. One year after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, wolves were added to the list of protected animals, though there was obviously very little to protect at the time. Finally, in April 1995, 14 grey wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park, launching one of the most significant and contentious reintroduction efforts in the country’s history. At the time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists pegged the recovery goals at a minimum of 30 breeding pairs and at least 300 wolves in the region for three consecutive years. That goal was achieved in 2002, but the delisting couldn’t proceed until the federal government approved management plans from all three states, which finally happened in March of this year. Of course, wolves in Yellowstone will always be safe, but when animals wander beyond the park’s boundaries, their fate is in the hands of the states’ game wardens. And some people think that’s a mistake.

Today, more than 1,500 wolves occupy the Northern Rockies, so there’s no question the reintroduction was an unqualified biological success. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people trek to the park to view wolves and other wildlife, pouring more than $82 million into the region’s economy, according to the most recent data. Over time, people have watched pups reared, seen packs split in two, and witnessed alpha males rising to positions of power, all through the lens of so many high-powered telescopes. Although most wildlife biologists would dismiss the fate of an individual animal as it relates to the species’ health, it should come as no surprise that the death of wolf 253M the day after the delisting had many wolf watchers enraged.

“Limpy,” as he was known, was shot and killed in Wyoming, the state with the most liberal management plan, and one that has drawn the most concerns. In about 90 percent of the state, wolves are designated as predators that can be shot on sight without reason.

Each state has promised to maintain populations of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves within their borders, which ensures a population of 450 wolves, just above the delisting criteria. But in light of more recent scientific evidence that suggests this number may be inadequate, a dozen environmental groups sued the federal government in April, asking for gray wolves to be returned to the list immediately. The case could be in courts for years, but for now, many with a stake in the outcome believe wolves will do just fine.

“I support the delisting decision, and believe the process has been managed appropriately by the Fish and Wildlife Service,” says Mike Phillips, who oversaw the wolf-reintroduction at Yellowstone, and now reintroduces species across the globe as head of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. “But the groups involved in the lawsuit make an important point: They’re going to go before a judge and indicate that Yellowstone remains isolated, and that given enough time this isolation could create genetic problems that would eventually manifest itself as a declining and susceptible population. And there’s no question you need that genetic exchange to ensure that everybody’s got four legs, two ears, and a tail and the ability to kill an elk.”

Phillips also points out that the delisting process for all species is still in its infancy, and the debate is an important one, because any decision regarding Yellowstone’s wolves could have a dramatic impact on baselines established for wolf reintroductions in other parts of the country, not to mention dozens of other species.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, biologists with the federal government will monitor the wolf population closely for the next five years. And the Park Service will continue to oversee the population within Yellowstone’s boundaries, where hunting is illegal. Barring a systematic campaign of killing like the one unleashed nearly 100 years ago, the prospect for wolves is still positive.

“Wolves in Yellowstone have proven to be very adaptable, and have flourished here despite significant challenges,” says Tim Stevens, program manager in NPCA’s Yellowstone field office. “With the abundant prey base in the region, wolves will continue to do well, as long as the states honor their obligation to sustain a healthy, well-distributed wolf population as directed by science, not politics. And if the states fail to fulfill that promise, NPCA will work to relist wolves and return management authority to federal wildlife managers, so that wolves are managed in a way that provides an abundant population for generations to come.”

- Scott Kirkwood 

This article appears in the Summer 2008 issue.

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