Recovered from “endangered” status, Rocky Mountain wolves are now being hunted. It’s a classic story of human interests versus a competing predator.
If there’s one thing that human critters and Canis lupus have in common, it’s an appetite for elk and deer, cattle and sheep. We prefer them grilled or roasted; wolves eat them raw and bloody — no fancy sauces, please.
That’s always been a problem … we’re competitors for groceries. Not to mention those big teeth and what almost happened to Little Red Riding Hood. (In fact, what did happen to her in early versions of the fairy tale.)
Today, what is both economic competition and morality tale is being played out in the Northern Rockies, where it’s become legal once again to shoot wolves for sport.
During most of the 20th century, wolves were hunted to near extinction in the contiguous 48 states. Then, following their listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, some Canadian gray wolves were transplanted into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995-96 in order to reestablish them in their native habitat there.
Nature took its course. The wolves formed up into packs with dominant breeding pairs. As their numbers increased, so did their range — some swimming across the Snake River into Oregon.
They hunted deer and elk, plus the occasional cow, sheep, horse, and domestic pet. But scientists also found that ecosystems began improving as overpopulated elk were thinned. With fewer elk, willows and other plants became thicker, improving water quality as well as habitat for birds, beaver, and fish.
What started out as a few dozen Canadian wolves has grown to more than 1,600 animals — numbers that led federal officials to take the animal off the endangered species list.
Faster than you can load your rifle, Idaho and Montana established approved hunting seasons for wolves. On opening day last weekend, two wolves were shot in Idaho. Wyoming and Utah are pushing for a wolf hunt as well.
“It’s absolutely critical and vital to protect the interests of the West’s ungulates [wildlife herds] and livestock,” Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, told the Salt Lake Tribune.
Government studies show that many times more cattle and sheep are lost to coyotes, vultures, or domestic dogs than are lost to wolves, and it’s always been legal to shoot wolves attacking livestock. In those cases where wolves have killed livestock, the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife has been reimbursing ranchers. But it’s still “the big, bad wolf” in much of the rural West.
Meanwhile, scientists say the decline in numbers of elk in the greater Yellowstone area is more complicated than just blaming it on wolves, which is what some hunting groups say.
Like most controversial policy issues involving the environment — especially those focusing on “charismatic megafauna” like wolves or polar bears — this one will not go away anytime soon.
One of the first hunters to shoot a wolf in Idaho says he’s gotten many nasty phone calls and emails. “I have a thick skin and a good sense of humor,” Robert Millage told the Lewiston Tribune newspaper. “What am I going to do, yell back at them? I obeyed the law.”
As part of an ongoing lawsuit to restore federal Endangered Species Act protections to wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains, conservation groups have asked a federal district court to block fall wolf hunts.
“As a top predator, these creatures are vital to the health of the northern Rockies ecosystem, but many of the ecological improvements that we’ve seen as a result of their reintroduction to the region will be imperiled by the Idaho and Montana hunts,” says Louisa Willcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “While we are not against hunting, we are against conducting them prematurely, and in such a reckless and counterproductive manner.”