In the American West, no species of wildlife is as polarizing as the gray wolf. Native to most of North America, these apex predators once roamed from the Canadian Arctic to the mountains of central Mexico. However, strong anti-predator policies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries largely extirpated wolves. By 1970, only a handful of packs remained in the lower 48 states, confined to isolated areas of northern Minnesota and Isle Royale in Michigan.
As our understanding of ecology increased, anti-predator policies were gradually abandoned and the careful restoration of balanced ecosystems became favored. In the early 1980s, surviving wolf packs began to move back into the northern U.S., especially into the protected areas around Glacier National Park in Montana, and into remote regions of northern Idaho. Based on the relative success of these animals, an experimental recovery plan was developed for the Northern Rockies and, in 1995, a handful of Canadian wolves was released into Yellowstone National Park.
The idea of bringing back wolves was highly controversial at the time and remains so today. Some opponents worried that ungulate populations, especially elk, would be decimated, destroying the region's lucrative hunting industry. Others worried about wolves wandering outside the park where they might prey on sheep and cattle herds, spread disease or even stalk family pets. In short, wolves were portrayed as a serious threat to a way of life that has thrived in the West for more than a hundred years.
And these concerns are not completely baseless. Wolves do occasionally prey on livestock; they can, in some cases, carry diseases such as distemper and brucellosis; and a hungry wolf might eat a pet that happens into its path. The fact remains, however, that none of these events occur frequently enough to threaten the Western way of life. Ungulate herds persist and, in fact, thrive to the point that annual hunts are conducted to thin their numbers. Western ranchers continue to produce some of the best beef, mutton and wool in the world. And family pets face more danger from busy streets than they do from hungry predators.
Despite the prejudices they face, the Yellowstone wolves have done well since their release in 1995. By the end of 2010, 97 wolves, including 11 packs, were roaming the park.
But sometimes success has its drawbacks.
Recovering species still vulnerable
Because wolf populations have grown in the Northern Rockies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed that Wyoming's gray wolves be removed from the Endangered Species List
. The service argues that the state's wolf population is now stable and no longer meets the established criteria for being endangered or threatened.
These criteria, however, are hotly debated. Opponents of delisting worry that the plan is based more on politics than science, and that, if passed, it will result in a dramatic decrease in the wolf population. A similar plan, proposed by the Bush administration in 2007 was briefly passed, only to be overturned in 2010 by a federal court following a lawsuit by more than a dozen conservation organizations. In the short time that the wolves were delisted, significant damage was done. In 2009 alone, the wolf population in Idaho and Montana was reduced by almost 20 percent.
Such drastic and sudden reductions in population can have broad impacts on the health of species. In the case of wolves, which have complex social networks, it can lead to the disruption of existing packs and a loss of genetic diversity. Because of this, many conservationists argue that it's too soon to delist, and that proposed management plans don't adequately consider all aspects of the wolves' ecology.
Seasonal measures leave wolves in peril
Central to the current plan is the creation of a seasonal trophy game management area which provides some measure of hunting protection for wolves in western Wyoming from October through February. The remainder of the year, these same wolves would have absolutely no protection and could be killed by any means, even without a hunting license. The purpose of this partial protection is to allow the wolves to disperse, to leave their home ranges and to mingle with wolves in other areas — a behavior essential to maintaining genetic diversity.
While federal officials argue that most dispersals occur in the winter months and that the trophy hunt window allows the wolves adequate time to move about, critics, including Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park Mary Gibson Scott, worry that this seasonal management plan doesn't accurately reflect the true behavior of wolves. In a September letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Scott said that wolves disperse throughout the year and that "the biological rationale for the selection of those dates [October through February] is unclear."
She goes on to argue that the seasonal trophy game management area should be made permanent. This would help ensure genetic diversity among all the area packs, and could also help protect the wolves of Yellowstone and Grand Teton which would face serious danger if they stepped outside of the parks during the spring and summer months when the trophy season wasn't in effect. Radio-collared wolves from Grand Teton are known to spend time in the neighboring Gros Ventre range and they could be killed there without recourse. "Our goal," she said, "is to maintain wolves as part of the natural ecological landscape in the park, which will require designing hunt seasons and implementing management actions that maintain packs outside our boundary."
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