Wolves to Be Hunted if Removed From U.S. Endangered List

Hope Hamashige
for National Geographic News
February 5, 2007
Gray wolves in the U.S.'s northern Rocky Mountain region may become the
victims of their own success.

Last week the U.S. government proposed removing the animals from the endangered species list, citing a healthy rebound in numbers since wolves were reintroduced to the area in the mid-1990s.

If the proposal passes, within a year state rather than federal officials will be in charge of managing the gray wolves.

The move has many conservationists howling, because leaders in three of the affected states have said that they will reinstate wolf hunting.

In particular, Idaho Governor C. L. "Butch" Otter has stated that his personal preference is to reduce wolf numbers from the current 650 animals in that state to 150—although he intends to leave the task of setting population goals to the state's fish and game department.

More wolves, Otter and other critics say, increase the risk that the animals will kill cattle and threaten reserves of game animals.

But Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery coordinator, said that the states will likely reduce their wolf numbers because of a nonscientific factor: a lack of human tolerance.

"Whenever you start talking about wolves, it is never actually about wolves," he said. "It's always about what people think about wolves."

Low Goals

Gray wolves were hunted to near extinction in the western U.S. in the 1800s and early 1900s. The animals received federal protections under the Endangered Species Act in 1974.

In 1995 the wolves were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain region as part of a program to revitalize their dwindling numbers.

Federal guidelines required Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho to maintain a total minimum of 300 wolves in the wild with 30 breeding pairs—the bare minimum, Bangs says, for keeping up a biologically viable population.

In a few short years the animals did bounce back, becoming a success story of the Endangered Species Act.

(Related news: "Thriving Gray Wolf May Come Off U.S. Endangered List" [January 22, 2003].)

From 66 gray wolves that were released over a decade ago, the population has grown to about 1,200 in the northern Rockies. And more than 4,000 of the animals now live in the Great Lakes region.

If wolves are removed from the endangered species list, the federal government will still require each state to maintain a hundred wolves and ten breeding pairs or the animals will be relisted.

But "that is a pretty low recovery goal," Bangs said.

Jeremy Heft, a biologist with the Wolf Education Research Center in Lewiston, Idaho, noted that there is little agreement on the number of wolves that the region can support from an ecological perspective.

"In Idaho we could easily support a hundred [wolves] in a quarter of the state," he said. "There are people arguing that a hundred is too many. That is a socio-economic argument, not a biological one."

Idaho and Montana officials say each state plans to maintain a minimum of 15 breeding pairs. So far neither state has set targets for its total wolf population and both are saying they will reinstate hunting, Bangs said.

"My guess," he said, "is the states will manage at smaller numbers than we have now."

Wolves as Scapegoats?

Though it is not clear how many wolves will survive once hunting returns to Idaho and Montana, both states say they have the same goal: to maintain healthy, biologically sound populations.

Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for Idaho's Department of Fish and Game, said: "We are not going to reduce the population to the floor."

So far Idaho and Montana's wolf-management plans have been approved by the federal government, while Wyoming's plan is still pending.

But conservation experts say that the justifications for hunting wolves are poorly informed.

Bangs noted that of every hundred cattle killed in Montana, wolves take down less than one percent.

Disease, weather, lightning, coyotes, birthing problems, and poisonous weeds are all more deadly threats to livestock.

Suzanne Stone, a biologist with the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said that in Idaho more cattle are taken by thieves than are killed by wolves.

Likewise, the claims that wolves are killing off game animals don't stand up to actual tallies, said Carolyn Sime, Montana's statewide wolf coordinator.

According to Sime, elk appear to change their behavior when wolves are in the ecosystem. Rather than linger around creek bottoms, elk move into timber areas.

"That makes it harder to harvest an elk, because hunters have to beat the brush to find them," she said. Other factors such as drought, severe cold, and a variety of natural predators also affect elk numbers.

"The data," she added, "don't support that elk numbers are being diminished by wolves."

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