Putting America's gray wolves back in the crosshairs

Putting America's gray wolves back in the crosshairs
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Last week, the Trump administration published a proposed rule that would strip the protections of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) from gray wolf populations nationwide. The science is pretty obvious here: Wolves are still struggling to establish viable populations in the Cascades of Oregon and Washington and in the mountains of California, and their populations remain extinct across vast tracts of suitable habitat on public lands in Nevada, Utah and Colorado.

They are still a long way from being recovered. This proposal to de-list the wolves before recovery has even begun across most of the West is a political hatchet-job, driven by the livestock industry and a fringe movement of the sportsmen pressing to hasten the day when wolves can again be freely targeted for extermination.

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Livestock producers look upon themselves as royalty, believing the natural world to be placed at their disposal by a sort of divine right. The wolf fits into this dominionist worldview, if it fits at all, as a hated fairytale monster, to be driven out or killed at every opportunity.  

Their war on wildlife targets not just wolves, but other carnivores like coyotes, mountain lions, and grizzly bears, ecological keystone species like prairie dogs and beavers, and even elk and deer that compete for forage with their cattle and sheep. This tiny but vocal segment of the public insists on decimating native wildlife for their own profit-driven self-interest. 

As wolves have begun their return to federal public lands, nature’s balance has returned, but social problems with the industry have erupted. Not because wolf “depredations” on cattle and sheep are numerous: Wolves remain one of the smallest causes of livestock losses according to federal data, with domestic dogs killing 20 times more livestock than wolves.

Instead, the cause of the conflict is the 19th-century mentality of a livestock industry that rents public lands for grazing, aiming to kill off wolf populations before they can get re-established in their native habitats.

In the state of Washington, the state plan authorizes wolves to be killed if there are livestock losses. Theoretically, ranchers are supposed to employ non-lethal methods on public lands to protect their stock. This doesn’t always happen. One particular public-land rancher — the largest cattle operation in the state — turned out their livestock in close proximity to a wolf den site in what appears to be a deliberate effort to create livestock-wolf conflicts so the wolves could be killed. The facts of this case were documented by a Washington State University wolf scientist, who soon found his research shut down and his position terminated thanks to pressure from an anti-wolf legislator and corruption within the university system.

As controversy continues to swirl around the livestock industry’s wolf-killing agenda in Washington, one thing has become abundantly clear: Killing a few wolves won’t appease the agriculture industry. Instead, the place where wolves enjoy the greatest social tolerance — indeed, admiration — is Yellowstone National Park where livestock are absent and killing wolves is strictly prohibited. But even Yellowstone wolves are being killed by sport hunters when they wander outside the invisible Park boundary.

Killing wolves is already allowed in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington and Oregon. These states are a cautionary tale for premature removal of protections.

In Idaho, the last time the Idaho Department of Fish and Game actually estimated wolf abundance was in 2015, when the estimated population at between 684 and 786 wolves.  In 2016, Idaho hunters and trappers killed 226 wolves and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services killed about 72 more. Together, ag interests and hunters may have whacked 60 percent of Idaho’s wolf population in 2016 alone.

Wyoming’s wolf plan is so permissive that it is legal to kill as many wolves as you want at any time of year without even a hunting license, across 85 percent of the state. And in the 15 percent of the state where hunting is actually managed, the absence of a no-kill zone around national parks means that popular Yellowstone wolves are getting shot when the leave the Park. One sport hunter even “mistakenly” shot a wolf inside Grand Teton National Park itself. In Wyoming, there is also no law against running over wolves on snowmobiles. 

In Nevada, Utah and Colorado, vast tracts of wolf habitat rich in natural prey remain empty of wolves, and predator-hostile state policies could block the recovery of this magnificent species entirely. Indeed, this seems to be the livestock industry’s goal, and removing ESA protections will immediate put wolves back in their crosshairs, in a literal sense.

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Federal public lands are owned by all Americans, and must be managed for multiple uses including conservation of native wildlife, wolves included. There is plenty of science showing that wolves and other native wildlife have minimal impacts on livestock operations when the industry takes basic steps to keep their livestock safe using nonlethal methods. On the other hand, there is a growing body of research showing that killing wolves in response to livestock losses doesn’t accomplish anything

The solutions are obvious: Wolves need to stay listed until they reach viable populations across the remaining ecologically suitable habitat. If ranchers want to run their livestock on public lands, they need to accept the infrequent livestock losses as part of the cost of doing business on public lands.

If they can’t handle that risk, they are welcome to move their stock from public lands to private lands, where those pesky environmental safeguards don’t apply. Relocation of livestock to private lands not only solves the livestock-wolf problem, but also restores healthy lands that support more deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, and allow livestock-damaged streams to recovery to the benefit of healthy and abundant trout populations. It’s a win-win for all concerned.  

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist with scientific research published in the field of predator-prey relationships. He serves as executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicates to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds across the West.