Opinion: Wolves in Yellowstone Still Need Protection

Gibbon wolf pack standing on snow; Doug Smith; March 2007

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 66 gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and adjacent wilderness areas in Idaho back in 1995-’96, conservationists and ranchers squared off across a fence and hurled insults at each other for months.

By then, both sides had had plenty of practice in the art of verbal warfare from previous battles over buffalo harvests and the ever-popular “elk shoots,” wherein surplus animals were herded by helicopters into a funnel of “hunters,” who thinned the herd back to manageable numbers in a hail of lead. To call that a hunt would be akin to calling Wounded Knee a fair fight. I never met anyone who participated in one of those culling events who wasn’t sickened by the slaughter.

When wolves began again to hunt prey in Yellowstone, many ranchers argued that Canis lupus would soon be lining up at their livestock operations like teenagers at a takeout window. Here, for the taking, was an endless supply of Happy Meals.

As mitigation for those meals, the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife has spent $1.5 million since 1987 compensating ranchers for their losses — though this has failed to mollify ranchers.

The argument for restoring wolves, however, was unassailable. When the last wolf was finally killed in Yellowstone back in 1926, the elk population soared and the ecosystem fell out of balance. The park’s riparian areas and aspen stands were devastated by the 8,000-plus elk herds, and an inventory of the park’s wildlife in the early 1970s failed to turn up more than a handful of deer. These, and dozens of other critters, could not compete with the elk.

By the mid-1990s, alarmed biologists told Congress that something had to be done. According to William J. Ripple, a leading researcher on the effect of wolves on the Yellowstone ecosystem who is based at the University of Oregon, bringing back wolves, the alpha predators, was the right move.

Since 1996, Yellowstone’s elk population has been cut by two-thirds. The number of beaver and birds has increased, along with deer and red foxes, and the aspen and riparian areas once devastated by overgrazing are making a slow but steady recovery.

But Ripple cautions: “We think this is just the start of the restoration process. We have to sit back and wait for the ecosystem to continue responding. We call this ‘passive restoration,’ because the ecosystem, with the wolf as a key component at the apex of the predator pyramid, is only now emerging. The aspens, the berry-bearing bushes, the riparian areas, they all seem to be responding, but we went 70 years without the wolves in Yellowstone…It’s much too early to draw conclusions.”

For those and many other reasons, the federal government’s decision this summer to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list was not roundly applauded. Though Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, declared the decision to be “the next step forward in wolf conservation,” many questioned its wisdom.  Anticipating the inevitable storm of controversy, the agency invited the public to weigh in on whether wolves should be removed from the endangered species list at http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073-0001. The deadline for comments is September 11.

When Congress removed the Endangered Species Act protections from the gray wolf in 2011, it turned wolf recovery projects over to the states. In minutes, Idaho legalized the hunting of wolves. In two years, 1,175 wolves have been killed by hunters, including 10 “research wolves” that wandered out of protected zones in Yellowstone National Park.

Battles over restoring and protecting salmon and other endangered species have shown, time and again, that politicians can be quick to sacrifice science to political self-interest. At the very least, many conservationists argue that wolves need a large “no-hunting” buffer around Yellowstone Park.

“If the packs are persecuted,” Ripple asks, “what will happen to the social structure of those remaining? Do they still provide an ecologically beneficial function? We don’t know. This research is in its infancy. We need to err on the side of caution until we learn more about the role of the wolf in these ecosystems.”

The basic question remains: As a society, how far are we willing to go and what are we willing to sacrifice to preserve the wild?


This article originally appeared in High Country News. Photo by Doug Smith

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.


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{ 28 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Wyoming Camp CookWyoming Camp Cook Post author

    WRONG !!!!!! Live and work it 15 years . Wolves are overpopulated and now Fish and Game are moving them to other counties that have plenty of predation already . Def want to do the math on this sad topic .

  • CJ

    Congrats AJ, I just deleted your bookmark on my computer and read my last article on your site. For those of us that are sportsmen who love hunting and fishing, the wolf population does far more harm than good.

    I wish you well in pushing your liberal agenda on others.

    • Tait

      Woah, CJ. I have a conservative political philosophy, and sometimes scratch my head at the unexamined (or just unexplained) presuppositions behind some of the opinions expressed. But, it is a terrible disease in American conservatism, that we stop our ears to opposing views without examining them. We must express a stronger argument, or change our minds. Like this:

      The argument in this article is a non sequitur. He claims that wolves must be put back on the endangered species list to protect the Yellowstone ecosystem. However, wolves are still protected in Yellowstone. You cannot hunt them there. And wolves outside of the park are managed like any other game species, no longer under an extermination policy (well, maybe in Wyoming.) It stands to reason that if 66 seminal wolves can populate the Northern Rockies, limiting the population to a scientifically-founded cap is likely to function well.

      If you like the other articles here, keep reading AJ. Tame that knee-jerk. The rest of the country will thank you.

    • steve casimiro Post author

      Congratulations, CJ, on being so smallminded that the posting of one opinion piece by an outside writer is enough to make you reject an entire publication. The world, and this forum, would be better served if people with strongly held and reasonably argued positions made their dissents clear by mounting counterarguments. It’s much easier simply to flip us the bird, but it doesn’t really accomplish much.

      If you, or anyone else, has a well-written, thoughtful story on why wolves shouldn’t be protected, by all means, let me know. I’ll give it the same consideration for posting as I gave this one.

      Furthermore, I refuse to slap a disclaimer on pieces that say “the opinion stated here does not necessarily represent the position of AJ” because I like to think that AJ readers are smart and savvy enough to understand that AJ is a place where issues are raised and debated and that few stories, if any, reflect an “official” stance. All stories reflect the worldview of the individual author, and if you have problems with their position, attack their argument.

      Finally, where were you when I ran these stories?

      A Wolf Was Killed. Now Let’s All Calm Down
      Hunting for Wolves In Montana

    • Kathleen Rock

      There is a lot of angry liberal posts here, CJ. I’ve been puzzled by that too. Every time I leave a comment that says “can’t we stop with the liberal agenda and just hike?” They don’t publish it. That being said this blog has a lot of talent and some awesome stuff so stick around.

      • steve casimiro Post author

        Kathleen, that is completely untrue. The only comments I don’t approve are those that make personal, off-topic attacks, are obviously from trolls, or are spam. Criticism is welcome, even encouraged.

        However, I would caution you about throwing around terms like “liberal agenda” (or conservative agenda, either). The only agenda I have is to stoke people’s enthusiasm about outdoor adventure, to inspire them to get outside, and to raise and discuss the multitude of issues that surround and affect the outdoor culture. By accusing or even thinking about Adventure Journal — or anything else for that matter — in terms of such a sweeping label as liberal agenda, you reduce complexity to a simplistic and frankly meaningless bogeyman. When you come with your own bias and preconceived ideas like this, you automatically, unconsciously, put the stories you find into a box, or cite them as more evidence of this supposed agenda, instead of considering each on their own merits.

        • Kathleen Rock

          I actually appreciate you getting back to me. I did write one comment that was a bit angry about the westerners getting killed by the Taliban at the base of the mountain. That was a very personal subject to me but it contained neither spam, trolling or a personal attack that I remember.
          I agree that I should take the ideas on their own merits. I don’t agree with your assessment of how I read the articles. Be that as it may we would never know since this forum doesn’t lend itself to it.
          Again i appreciate the articles here and ask that you don’t put the way I read them into a box just because I call it as I see it. I honestly didn’t think anyone here would take offense to “Liberal Agenda” I thought you would like it.

  • oliver

    Wolves are not overpopulated, people are. Liberal agenda? How about sanity based on sound science. ‘Living it and working it 15 years’ means nothing; ranchers and sportsmen (so called) never get it because they just think in terms of their lifetime, or that of their families who have maybe been on this land a mere handful of generations.

  • Craig Rowe

    Great, thanks Steve, now I’ll get nothing done today. My favorite topic.

    CJ is awesome, by the way, who wants to bet we can get him to respond again? (By the way, remember to delete your cache too, because AOL on IE 3.0 hangs on to those bookmarks for ages.)

    Deliberate and certainly to be rewarded trolling aside, wolves are already much more impacted by man than they were prior to our deliberate slaughter of them in the name of ranching profit. We have more homes, more roads and an all-around greater presence in the wild regions they once claimed alone. Hell, look at what happened to the grizzly, which used to thrive along the southern California coast until LA decided to make off with all the water and grow like a flu bug. Point is, even without a dedicated efforts, the bear’s population declined rapidly from its once great numbers. Only now is it finding balance. (That’s not a black bear on the CA flag.)

    I think the wolf will expand until our living borders hem it in. Now, it wouldn’t be so bad to see a couple of pink-collared cocker-corgis go missing …

    Anyway.

    I’m always baffled by the arguments that without any merit completely wave off decades of field research with as non-salient a point as “Outfitters can’t bag as many elk, business is ruined!” (It’s not.) and “A wolf killed a sheep last week on my buddy’s cousin’s ranch hands’s other ranch he works on.” (We think.) So, the science is bad, but hearsay and assumptions are sound enough to delist? Huh.

    Man’s presence on animals has forever been a source of the ebb and flow of their existence. But again, the intent of many hunters is not to carefully control for the sake of ecosystem balance, but to simply eliminate for the soul reason of having less risk on the ranch and more elk to shoot on commercial hunts.

    By the way, just read Carter Niemeyer’s “Wolfer.” It explains everything in a balanced-enough fashion for even the CJs of the world to grasp.

    Maybe.

  • Abomb

    I love when hunters throw their arms up about wolves because the wolves are killing elk that they would prefer to kill themselves, e.g. RMEF. I’ve been elk hunting myself once before. Hunting is not really for me, but if you enjoy it I have no issue. But please don’t stand against wolves just because the number of elk has dropped and they’re harder to find, they’re fewer tags, etc. Ever stop and think that before humans were around in high numbers this is probably how it was before? Let’s try to preserve at least a small bit of true wilderness and nature as it once was. I think we owe it to the future.

    I’d honestly like to see more Mexican gray wolves here in Arizona. And wouldn’t it be great if there were still a few grizzlies lurking somewhere out there in the SW? At least the government has recently started to look at at increasing the range for the Mexican gray wolves down here beyond the NM/AZ border area.

    If someone’s a rancher, then I think they have some more legitmate concerns with regard to lost property…

  • Kathleen Rock

    I think the problem here is that politicians in Washington are making decisions for people thousands of miles away on topics of which they have no concept. You can’t believe the numbers because you can only count a wolf kill on domestic animals if you have proof (picture or something.) Further, all these people saying let’s preserve nature etc. How is scientists and conservationists fabricating and messing with an ecosystem that is capable of dealing out survival and extinction without our help “natural?) I get that we shouldn’t have killed the wolf in the first place a hundred years ago but they’re back now and if they kill your cattle and harm your legal, healthy livelihood you should be able to shoot them.

  • Alexi Huntley

    First off – good on you SC for posting this article, not that it’s your first venture into this hotbed issue but you could have avoided it all together. But that’s not what we do here in the northern Rockies; we speak our minds and in my experience, given the right context I’ve seen ranchers and environmentalists doing a good job of listening as well.
    At the end of the day, the wolf issue is more about grazing lands than anything else. Ranchers want and need as much land as possible to fatten up their cattle, typically that kind of land exists beyond and bigger than most ranchers have on their own. So, as ranchers move their cattle around and into higher ground near the parks for grazing, they’re coming up against an ecosystem that doesn’t cater to modern day ranching.
    Despite having some very good friends that are ranchers, I think ranchers are already so squeezed by multinational feed lots and processors that they’re taking out their frustrations on wolves. When your business is working with 3% margins, losing a yearling to a wolf can be the difference between a good year and disaster.
    In my opinion, it’s the same as someone that builds a home in a wildfire prone area, if you want to build it and it gets burned down well that’s your problem. Why should tax payers have to pay for you to build your house all over again in the same place? If a rancher wants to have cattle (a non native species) in the ecosytem of the northern Rockies, well then you’re just going to have to deal with wolves and bears, and bison and winter and everything else this country throws at you.

  • Scott SiglerScott Sigler Post author

    Camp Cook is correct. The protected wolf is causing heavy predation on local wildlife. I spent 5 days on Slough Creek and didn’t see the first Moose or Deer, in what is reported to be one of the greatest wildlife viewing areas.

    • Craig Rowe

      Welcome to the wilderness. It’s unpredictable. And the reason Slough Creek became so renowned for its wildlife was because there was nothing for them to fear in frequenting the area. Plus, we don’t know if it was wolves or bears that pushed out the ungulates, right?

      And, if it makes you feel any better, you don’t see many wolves in Lamar Valley anymore either. The Druid pack has been pretty much wiped out and, like all forms of wildlife, they move on.

  • Deborah Woodard

    My family and time are split between the west and the east, on properties both large and small. What I observe is an explosion of ungulates where other forces human and nonhuman are not controling them. They are demolishing the future forests and riparian areas and decimating valuable agricultural cropland and wildlife habitat. I see economies that are not only dependent on ranching and other forms of agriculture but also travelers desiring the wild and the bucolic places. I see reflected in the attitude of many who use public lands for private gain a failure to remember that those lands belong to all Americans and are supported by tax dollars levied upon us all. Those who hold land privately but refuse to acknowledge that lands existence in a greater whole are yet another part of the equation. It’s all so very complicated with a myriad demands coming from as many quarters. The one thing we do know is that the regions upon which life, human included in all it’s complexity, depend don’t recognize metes and bounds. There’s still so much that we don’t know and to imagine that any species that once covered the continent or swam in great numbers in the oceans and bays can be marginalized to small “managed” bands is a failure to see a larger picture and perhaps it’s consequent impact upon us all.

    • CJ

      I couldn’t figure out how to delete My bookmark.

      I did an ask.com search but then my dial up connection was lost. Damn incoming faxes at inconvenient times.

  • William huard

    The NRM should be ashamed for allowing predator hating wolf killers to target Yellowstone Wolves. These wolves should be protected. This video that I have posted shows what “wildlife management” consists of in the NRM. A distinct minority of LOONS should not be allowed to kill a resource that brings in plenty more revenue to local economies than a few outfitters ever did. The coward from Wyoming that shot Lamar 06 is still in hiding. The killers are protected every step of the way.
    http://wiwildlifeethic.org/2013/05/26/graphic-video-shows-true-nature-of-hounders/
    This was taken in Idaho. The person responsible called me a liberal tree hugger before he tried to delete the video. Why again should these States be allowed to manage anything?

  • Nancy B.

    Humans Are and Always will be the Problem NOT the Wolves ! THEY are part of nature and the Ecosystem . It is the Humans that come in and wipe our their natural prey and put livestock in their place then wonder why the wolves eat the sheep and cows now & again ~ Did you ever think its because they are HUNGRY & They have Families to feed just the same as humans do . The Problem is Humans Think they are GOD and they Own Everything but the truth is just because you can Murder Innocent animals it does’nt make you better than them just better at killing , The Big Difference is most all animals only kill to eat & survive where humans do it for the sheer joy of killing because they can . Wolves are Sentient Beings just as humans they FEEL pain & joy & hunger & thirst and yes even Love . They are a Part of Gods Creation and are MEANT to be where he put them , they Deserve to be left alone to live as they always have , if humans dont want them to eat their livestock then dont take away all of the wolves habitat and food ! COMMON SENSE !!!!

  • Tait Sougstad

    Nancy,

    Are humans not part of the ecosystem? You write as if wolves are the nobler animals, but which wolf pack has established a preserve for creatures below them on the food chain? It is the human that can decide to limit the expansion of their territory for the benefit of an ecosystem, whereas other animals will populate where ever they are able. Humans are a part of God’s creation, as well, and divinely given dominion over it, as well (if we are to read the first chapters of the Bible with any reverence.) Yes, we must manage wisely, but we are to manage nonetheless. And culling an animal may be a management tool we use.

  • Garret Cannon

    Wolves are part of the ecosystem too! The only reason wolves harm humans is because we have harmed the for hundreds of years. Like when France had their rebellion years ago. if we being harmed every day of my life i’m pretty sure one of us would rise up and form a resistance. just cause they’re animals doesn’t mean they’re dumb. animals in many ways are smarter than humans especially wolves. they know how to survive in the wild and how to resolve their problems better than we do. they scare their enemies and keep them from gaining power. what do we do? we go in to our enemies home destroy it and kill everyone we see that we “think” is a bad guy, terrorist, or antichrist all because they have a freaking beard and dark skin.
    another thing is is that we go in and destroy animals homes by cutting down their trees polluting their drinking water and mind you that water goes to our supply. i mean wtf?!
    yes i do believe that the wolf population should be controlled but preferably during 4 months out of the entire year and only in certain states and in small numbers. they should either be put down and properly disposed of, or tranquilized and sent to different wildlife zoos around the world.
    and to keep them from attacking livestock we should give some of our livestock to them in a far away area away from towns and cities and farm land.

    Wolves are a part of this life to either be with them or against them and then pay the consequences!!!

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