September 14, 2009
The Unjust War on Wolves
They travel there hoping to see nature, simple and raw.
A Glimpse of Days Gone By
Those who wait long enough might see the gray wolf pack cull a weak elk, and then watch as the heavy-coated, earthen-colored animals lie yards from the carcass, too full to chase away the crows, magpies, bald eagle and even a slinking coyote taking advantage of leftovers.
This scene used to exist almost corner to corner in North America, before frontiersman arrived with guns, cattle and minds bent on taking theirs and exterminating the competition. As the United States took shape, ranchers, hunters and trappers killed hundreds of thousands of wolves, almost to the point of extinction.
Bouncing Back from the Brink
It's an old, wrought story common to many species that once roamed our country, ranging from the long-gone Arizona Jaguar to the Eastern elk. However, thanks to offering wolves federal protection through the Endangered Species Act, wolves were allowed a chance at recovery.
Since the animals were listed in 1974, government agents, biologists and volunteers have worked to reintroduce and monitor packs in backcountry habitat. Wolves were trapped in Canada, radio-colored and released in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. They raced over hundreds of miles of trail beds and valleys, found mates, birthed new lives and lost old ones—all as their travels were chronicled through beeping signals, sounds amounting to the most thrilling reality TV show for any wildlife biologist.
As a whole, these animals have endured. Individual wolves have been killed mountain lions and succumbed to attacks from fellow wolves. Others may not make it through a harsh western winter. More to the heart of wolves' struggle, though, are the stories that end with a packmember killed by a rancher as the wolf chased an elk through a back field, or the rancher shooting a wolf supping on a still-born calf, then fear-mongering with posted pictures of the wolf lying dead next to the calf.
The gray wolves now number around 1,500 individuals in the Northern Rockies and—inexplicably with so few animals existing—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed federal protections from the wolf in Montana and Idaho and returned management to state hands. And this is the problem: The wolves are not ready for less protection. Far from it, in fact. Just last summer, a court sided with conservation groups, including The HSUS, and said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could not return type of management that sent wolves on the path to extermination in the first place.
A few months after this court ruling, not much has changed in these states' plans for wolf management except dates on the page. Montana and Idaho's management plans call for an immediate hunt of their packs. At the crack of dawn, September 1, 2009, the hunt began.
No endangered species has ever been delisted at such a low population level and then immediately hunted. Neither Idaho nor Montana has committed to maintaining a viable wolf population in its state—meaning open season. Idaho's wolf management plan even makes it clear that the state's official position is that wolves should be removed from Idaho by whatever means necessary.
Idaho's wolf hunt plan calls for the killing of 255 of wolves, or 30 percent of the state's 846 wolves; and Montana's plan asks hunters to kill 75 animals, or 15 percent of its 497 wolves. Keep in mind that these intentional killings are in addition to wolves already being killed as a result of conflicts with ranchers or property owners.
Extermination in the Works
More hunters will pour into the hills this week. The young, naïve pack members will perish first. And after the hunt is done, the remaining wolves will run across the hills searching for familiar faces of mates and leaders. Lacking those, they will be forced to build another, weaker family from wary stragglers sending up lonely howls.
Lives will be lost by the hundreds, and yet the remaining wolves will still be hungry, while government officials pay ranchers for the occasional cow or sheep lost. The same approach to living with wolves that drove these animals to extinction will only call for more killing, and four decades of recovery work may be in peril.
A Glimmer of Hope
Just last month HSUS lawyers succeeded in stopping planned wolf hunts in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. But despite the strong case presented by Conservation groups, a federal court in Montana has allowed the hunts to go forward in Idaho and Montana wolf hunts.
In a highly unusual ruling, the Court recognized that wolves should be put back on the endangered species list—but nevertheless found that sport hunting did not need to be halted while the case is decided.
Until then, wolves remain on the run.
What You Can Do