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Mar 9, 2009

A week ago I trumpeted the success of wolf-reintroduction efforts in the northern Rockies.  How quickly things can change.  On Friday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a stunning blow to the wolf recovery efforts: he’ll delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

 Gray Wolf

The administration plans to delist wolves in Montana, Idaho, the western Great Lakes and several other states, while protections in Wyoming will be maintained.  What this means is that states where wolves are delisted will be allowed to re-establish hunting seasons on wolves.  Given the enthusiasm among some hunters and ranchers for exterminating wolves, we can be sure that wolf populations could suffer dramatically.  Last time restrictions were lifted (April, 2008), at least 130 wolves were killed as hunters jumped at the opportunity.


With approximately 1,500 wolves in the northern  Rockies, the various populations are still mostly genetically isolated from each other and from Canadian populations – meaning that inbreeding and disease could decimate US populations.  Further reducing populations by hunting could significantly weaken their long term genetic viability.


Many of us believe the new administration was bringing in a new kind of thinking, yet this act is short sighted, fear-based, and caters to a few special interest groups.    


So why is Salazar delisting wolves?  Two primary reasons:


1. The Big Bad Wolf Bias: We all grew up hearing stories of Little Red Riding hood, the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and other fables warning us to be afraid of wolves.  Of course, just about anyone who has seen, or tried to see, wolves knows how fearful they are of humans… but few get to actually see wolves in the wild, and so that stigma persists.  


2. Money:


The Hunter Argument: The Idaho Fish & Game department, among others, argues that state revenues from elk hunters are lost when wolves kill elk.  While elk hunting is indeed big money (a single non-resident license can be $650 or more, and Idaho estimates each elk harvested to generate about $8,000 in total revenues for the state) the argument is weak: 

  • Wolves generally kill the sick and weakest animals, not those targeted by hunters.
  • Culling of the weak animals improves the overall health of the herd over the long run, and in the short term reduces feeding pressure on healthier elk during harsh winters.
  • There were plenty of elk before the wolves were exterminated from much of the region, so there’s little reason to believe wolves will now decimate elk populations.
  • It doesn’t consider the myriad positive economic benefits of wolves (from tourism to a healthier ecosystem that may actually increases populations of other “game” animals)

The Rancher Argument:  Salazar is a rancher himself, and many ranchers fear wolves hurt their incomes.  The primary concerns are that wolves are killing livestock and scaring herds. While Defenders of Wildlife helped establish a fund to compensate ranchers for livestock losses, ranchers argue many of their losses are not covered.  Ranchers often graze their cattle, unattended, on public land during the summer, only to find a significant percentage of the herd missing when rounded up in the fall. The cause is often impossible to know, but some ranchers blame wolves for their losses.



Of course the above arguments reflect thinking from an unsustainable status quo.  We were used to 70+ years without wolves in the northern Rockies, which meant elk populations grew too large for the environment to support, and ranchers got used to grazing their herds nearly risk and cost free on public land.  What we need is for the government to stand strong, do the right thing and protect wolves, and eventually we’ll establish a new status quo where the value of wolves in the ecosystem is recognized.  Reducing the wolf population today jeopardizes what was becoming one of the great environmental success stories of our generation. 


I encourage you to sign our petition to urge President Obama to re-list gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

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Posted: Mar 9, 2009 1:48pm


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Randy Paynter
, 1
Hillsborough, CA, USA
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