Thriving Gray Wolf May Come Off U.S. Endangered List

William Campbell
for National Geographic Today
January 22, 2003
By late spring or early summer, the United States Fish and Wildlife
Service may propose removing the western population of gray wolf from
the endangered species list.

The population has made a comeback in the Northern Rockies, which represents a significant achievement for the wolf—and for conservation. But the delisting proposal has sparked debate among federal and state agencies, and private environmental groups about whether the wolf should indeed roam free of the endangered designation.

After delisting, states would inherit responsibility for managing the wolf populations outside the national parks, as they do for black bear, deer, elk and mountain lion.

"We are wheeling the gray wolf out of the emergency room and into long-term care," says Ed Bangs, a biologist and a coordinator of the USFWS wolf recovery program in Helena, Mont.

The delisting proposal rests on state willingness—and readiness—to maintain the wolf population so that it doesn't become endangered again.

Delisting would not signal open season on wolves, according to Bangs. "There would probably be more liberal taking of problem wolves," he says, "and a regulated public hunting season."

The gray wolf once was the most widely distributed large predator in North America. By 1930 the wolf had almost vanished from the 48 contiguous states, leaving only a small population in the Midwest.

Since 1974 the federal Endangered Species Act has protected the wolf.

Recovery Goals Met?

"As of a couple of weeks ago we met our recovery goal of having more than 30 breeding pairs for three successive years," Bangs says.

A late December census counted 677 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming—558 of which are descended from 66 wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho in 1995 and 1996.

"We have roughly 41 pairs that successfully raised young last year," says Bangs. "Essentially wolf recovery, on a biological level, has been achieved."

But the delisting proposal will encompass states outside the original recovery area. The proposal seems too broad for conservationists concerned about states like Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington, where experts disagree about the wolf population's resiliency.

"The job is only half done," says Tom France, attorney and director of the Missoula-based Northern Rockies office of the National Wildlife Federation. France has worked on wolf programs for 20 years.

Nina Fascione, a biologist and vice president of species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., disputes whether the USFWS has indeed reached its goal of 30 breeding pairs.

"The distribution is just as important as the total number of wolves," says Fascione. "The number of pairs in Montana is below 10 and we need that area to serve as a corridor between Canada and Idaho and Wyoming."

Multiple populations, Fascione points out, promote genetic diversity and serve as insurance against natural disaster and disease.

Darting Wolves

While the delisting debate continues, wolf researchers are still cutting to the chase.

Each winter, in Yellowstone National Park, Bangs joins Doug Smith, the Yellowstone wolf project leader, in an attempt to collar 25 wolves throughout the park.

Researchers track the animals to monitor how they affect other wildlife like elk and deer—and livestock in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

There are only three ways to capture wolves. A leg trap, a neck snare, or a net gun or dart fired from a helicopter. Each technique has its own advantage, depending on the terrain.

In Yellowstone Park grizzly bears could get caught in leg traps or neck snares, eliminating these as possibilities. The terrain is open so aerial darting from a helicopter using newly developed tranquilizer drugs is the method used by wildlife biologists.

A slow-flying spotter plane finds the target wolves and radios a helicopter, which drops off what they call the "capture crew" near the wolf pack. Meanwhile, on board the helicopter, a dart sharpshooter takes aim.

"Capturing a wolf from a helicopter is an adrenaline rush," says Smith.

"They're running fast. This winter we don't have much snow so they're running faster than normal. They can do what we call 'juke and jive'—cut right, cut left, sometimes turn around completely because the snow isn't slowing them up this year."

Once a wolf is down, the capture team members on the ground fit it with a radio collar. They give each animal a quick physical and draw blood for DNA and disease analysis.

One complication is wolf turf. When the team captures wolves outside their own pack's territory biologists use the helicopter to fly them back to their home region before they wake up from the sedation. Otherwise the resident wolf pack might prey on them.

"Wolves, no matter how you look at them, are controversial," Smith says. "To solve problems we have to have information."

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