Continental Divide

Gray wolves return to the endangered species list—and not everyone is happy about it.


By Amy Leinbach Marquis


In the spring of 2008, when the Bush Administration delisted gray wolves in the Northern Rockies, emotions flared. Wyoming’s state legislators drafted a management plan that defined Canis lupus as “vermin predators,” giving residents the freedom to shoot wolves on sight, no questions asked, the moment the animals stepped beyond a narrow buffer zone just outside national park boundaries. In one extreme case, locals chased down wolves with snowmobiles for 15 miles before shooting them dead. Environmental groups were outraged, and sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to relist the species given the treacherous conditions.

Three months later, when the federal government determined that Wyoming’s policies could bring the state’s wolf populations dangerously low, the Fish and Wildlife Service relisted the entire population of wolves, but then approved delisting petitions from Montana and Idaho, which were considered well-prepared to manage the species under their own state laws. In those two states, wolves would be hunted during a specific season, just like other wildlife, ensuring a healthy wolf population for years to come.

But there was a problem with that arrangement. Never before in the history of the Endangered Species Act had the government delisted one population of an endangered species, as it did in Montana and Idaho, while listing another portion of that population, as it had done for Wyoming. Finally, this August, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy decided that the ruling violated the Endangered Species Act, and ordered the entire wolf population in all three states to be relisted.

That decision didn’t sit well with Montana and Idaho, whose wildlife agencies had worked to develop acceptable management plans and viewed this as a giant step backward. Shortly after, an editorial in the Missoulian, a western Montana newspaper, called on Wyoming to get its act together: “The Cowboy State’s unchecked hatred of wolves and childish refusal to come up with a wolf-management plan that meets even the most minimal requirements is only working against [Wyoming]—and holding Montana and Idaho back as well.”

Why such resistance in Wyoming? Part of that answer can be traced back thousands of years to an extreme cultural divide. “If you look at the history of wolves in both American and European cultures, even before America was settled, people either demonized wolves or looked at them as some sort of gods—and I think that still exists here today,” says Patricia Dowd, program manager in NPCA’s Yellowstone field office. Such deeply rooted culture clashes are a hard thing to overcome—but Dowd believes that a balanced approach to wolf management could help break down the myths associated with wolves.

Montana, and to some extent Idaho, achieved that balance by designating a hunting season. But those hunts created additional controversy when people began aiming rifles at collared wolves from Yellowstone that had just stepped across park boundaries. Despite the loss of some beloved individuals, however, the number of wolves killed did not significantly impact the overall wolf population.

Still, NPCA and other conservation groups took issue with the idea of hunting a species that is still endangered in another state. “Wolves are biologically recovered, but they shouldn’t have been delisted,” says Tim Stevens, director of NPCA’s Northern Rockies regional office. “But once Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all have an approved plan in place, we believe a limited hunt based on science is an appropriate management tool.”

That’s a message that might resonate with some wolf opponents in Wyoming—but it’s not the only message that environmental groups are hoping to get across. “We need to help people understand that wolves are a critical part of the natural landscape,” says Sharon Mader, senior program manager in NPCA’s Grand Teton field office. “Studies show that habitat, even within a park, is horribly degraded when you don’t have a proper balance of prey and predators.”

Take elk, for instance: Without wolves to keep their populations in check, ungulates could overgraze and degrade important stream corridors critical to migrating songbirds and other species. But in the presence of a top predator, elk behavior changes. Rather than lollygagging along waterways, elk keep moving across the region—which, in turn, means a healthier landscape.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. “There’s a very culturally driven belief that wolves are competing against hunters and devastating elk herds,” Mader says. And although there’s no scientific evidence to back up that claim, seeing is believing. “Some families may recall seeing elk in a particular area for 100 years,” Dowd says, “but now that wolves are back, elk aren’t hanging out there anymore. And if you don’t see elk where you always used to see elk, you might think wolves killed them all off. The truth is, elk are on the move, and they’re affected by habitat changes outside the park, too—climate change, oil- and gas drilling, change in land use. It’s easier to blame the wolf than look more holistically at what’s going on across the landscape.”

Environmentalists might be partly to blame for this mindset. “I think where we failed in the conservation movement was in forgetting to talk to people about what it was going to be like living with wolves once they were reintroduced,” Dowd says. “So here we are, 15 years later, and there are wolf packs dispersed throughout the region, but we are just starting to address what it’s like to live with wolves on the ground.”

The good news? On a biological level, wolf recovery has been a success. Wolves’ numbers not only meet, but exceed, the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. But if they’re to be considered for delisting again, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming must each come up with management plans that guarantee a certain number of breeding pairs and a certain number of wolves, equally dispersed over the three states. And considering wolves can travel for hundreds of miles, the states also need to guarantee that packs aren’t isolated, so that individuals can move about freely, reproduce, and raise offspring that contribute to the genetic pool.

Grand Teton National Park, which lies within Wyoming’s boundaries, is the perfect example of why that movement is so critical. Here, only one of the seven wolf packs remain primarily within the park; the others have to venture beyond park boundaries to survive. “I think that’s something that most people don’t understand about large predators in parks,” Mader says. “In winter, elk move out of the park because the habitat no longer fits their needs—and when elk move, wolves move. Park borders were drawn without consideration of these movements, but now we know that even in a place as big as Yellowstone, wildlife rely on an area that’s much larger than the boundaries of the park.”

It’s hard to know if the political situation in Wyoming will change anytime soon. But with added pressure from Wyoming’s neighbors, and increasing support for a smart wolf-management plan from residents growing tired of the anti-predator attitude, there’s still hope for a cultural shift. The Park Service can help, too, by continuing to provide objective, scientific data to state wildlife managers.

In the meantime, it’s business as usual for wolves inside Yellowstone National Park. “We will always uphold protection for the wolf, which we view as an essential component of America’s ecosystems,” says Dan Stahler, a park biologist with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. That unwavering dedication, he adds, highlights the valuable role the Park Service plays when the country is faced with such politically charged issues. No matter how turbulent things get outside park boundaries, there will always be a core, protected space where Americans can gaze across landscapes in hopes of spotting a wolf.

“This story of wolf recovery in the West reveals our greatest desire to save species that are imperiled and to restore the integrity of these ecosystems,” Stahler says. “People are going to disagree on whether this current decision is a victory for wolf recovery or not, and we’ll just have to wait and see if the ruling brings people back together to decide what’s best for wolves and the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. Because it won’t be successful without that collective voice, and that’s the biggest challenge.”

Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Fall 2010 issue.

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