Lessons from the West
by George Wuerthner

Many wish to see the wolf restored to provide for recovery of an endangered species. Certainly that is what is legally driving the wolf recovery efforts across the country since the animal was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. But I hasten to add that we should also be advocating for wolf recovery because wolves are an essential evolutionary force that has shaped wild ungulate populations and influenced many other species like competing carnivores such as coyotes throughout time. By definition biodiversity preservation means we preserve the elements that create and shape biodiversity evolution. The wolf, as top predator throughout most of North America, is analogous to fire in its interaction with vegetative communities. We cannot accept the idea of restoring a few token wolf packs in a few select areas. We need to restore wolves across the landscape to restore a major evolutionary force - the wolf. Biologically there is no reason why this can't be achieved.

Right now there are many hailing wolf restoration efforts in the Rockies, Southwest and Southeast as a "success." Success by what definition? They are dispersing and exploring new areas. In a limited way one can call this restoration effort a success. But in my mind, the effort to restore wolves will never be a real success until we find a way to restore the wolf across much of the landscape it formerly inhabited.

Under that kind of definition, the wolf restoration efforts have been anything but a success. The only places where wolves in the Rockies and Southwest are not experiencing excessive mortality due to human control efforts is in designated wilderness or park areas. Yes wolves are doing well inside the boundaries of YelIowstone Park. They are surviving in Central Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. But outside of these few protected zones, wolf recovery is not proceeding as desired.

In the tri-state area of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, 79% of all known wolf mortalities are due to humans, primarily "lethal" control by "Wildlife Services" at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Indeed, control efforts may jeopardize any wolf recovery and delisting, and certainly has significantly slowed wolf recovery in the region.

To delist wolves in the northern Rockies-Northwest Montana (includes Glacier NP), Greater Yellowstone, and Central Idaho - a population of 10 breeding pairs of wolves in all three recovery areas for three consequent years must be achieved. Though there is substantial output of pups, recovery goals are not being achieved due to excessive control efforts to appease livestock interests in the region.

Yet the livestock losses are insignificant. For example, in Montana, livestock producers lose well over 200,000 animals a year to all causes - disease, eating poison plants, weather and other factors. Of these losses, wolves account for no more than a dozen or so on average a year. By comparison, domestic dogs kill an average of 1,500 livestock in Montana annually. Despite these minuscule losses, the entire success of the wolf restoration project is held captive by this tiny minority that for too long have controlled western politics. Even most regional and national environmental groups are afraid to condemn the livestock industry and in my view are equally culpable for the death of wolves by their very silence. While the losses to ranchers are almost statistically irrelevant, the losses of wolves and its implications for wolf recovery are significant. For example, in Northwest Montana where wolves originally recolonized on their own from Canada and where wolf recovery has been going on for more than 15 years, there were only five known breeding packs in 1999. That was partly the result of the killing of 27 wolves (more than a third of the known population at the time) by Wildlife Services in one year due to conflicts with a few livestock producers. These control efforts were done illegally since the Northwest Montana wolves are considered "endangered" under the ESA and technically protected. But no voice was raised in objection to this kind of killing. This killing was done on top of a major prey die-off due to high winter mortality of deer. Is this how we "recover" an endangered species?

We continually hear about "problem" wolves. Even wolf supporters have bought into this pejorative use of the term. There are no "problem" wolves. The problem exists with how we humans define restoration. In nearly all instances, the reason wolves are killed is due to predation by wolves upon domestic livestock. Yet research and experience have demonstrated that proper animal husbandry practices that include swift removal of carcasses, the use of herders and guard dogs and penning of animals at night result in livestock that are far less vulnerable to predator losses. Yet no one, not the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or even most pro-wolf organizations are demanding that such practices be implemented in order to minimize conflicts.

It is irresponsible ranchers, not wolves, that are causing problems and livestock "conflicts." Caring properly for livestock is and should be one of the costs of doing business. Right now ranchers have successfully "externalized" one of their costs - proper livestock husbandry - on to the public upon the backs of wolves and other predators.

Indeed, the entire focus of research and support appears to be towards changing the wolves' behavior. Research on the use of sound devices, shock collars, taste avoidance, and other manipulation raises real questions about whether we are going to recover "wild" wolves or merely have "token" animals that look but don't act like wolves running around the landscape.

Worse yet, and more dangerous, is the status of the other wolf recovery areas in the Rockies. Wolves in Central Idaho and Greater Yellowstone are considered "experimental and nonessential." This status allows for even greater manipulation and control of the animals. Wolf supporters in other regions such as the Northeast should be wary of accepting wolf restoration under these terms. Apparently once an experimental wolf, always an experimental wolf - even for your descendants.

When a wolf from Idaho dispersed into Oregon last March, she was captured and relocated to Idaho because she was a "descendant" of a wolf pack that was part of the experimental nonessential population. Ordinarily, a wolf dispersing into Oregon would have full protection under the Endangered Species Act and would not be removed or manipulated. "Experimental nonessential population" status allowed the Fish and Wildlife Service to yank this wolf out of the wild even though she had not had any conflicts with irresponsible ranchers.

Under experimental and nonessential status, the FWS was able to avoid advocating any changes in federal land management or even livestock practices. As a result lethal control has also taken its toll on wolves in the other recovery areas. In the past year, for instance, three wolf packs in a 150-mile swath of Central Idaho were destroyed - again due to livestock conflicts.

A number of wolf packs in the Greater Yellowstone area also experienced lethal control to the detriment of the pack organization. For example, the Sheep Mountain pack whose territory extended just north of Yellowstone National Park experienced the loss of 6 members this past year due to lethal control.

The Sheep Mountain losses exemplify what is wrong with our entire approach to wolf restoration. These wolves had established a den site and later a rendezvous site on an elk winter range and calving ground on Forest Service land that also happened to be used as a summer livestock grazing allotment. Even though the wolves were still actively using the area, the FS and FWS allowed the rancher to place his cattle on the allotment. This operator left dead animals on the allotment, and was not required to herd or otherwise protect his animals. About a week before the rancher was supposed to pull his cows off the public lands, the wolves found and fed upon a dead cow carcass. A few days later, they attacked a calf and killed it. The FWS immediately flew in and killed four wolves. This was an entirely avoidable situation. Yet no one, not the FWS, not the FS, not even most environmental organizations questioned the policy of allowing livestock and wolves to overlap.

There is not a wolf pack that I am aware of in the West that has the majority of its territory overlapping with livestock that hasn't wound up preying upon livestock at some point in time. Maybe not every generation, maybe not every wolf but sooner or later, wolves give in to the opportunities presented by sloppy livestock operations, and consequently suffer some kind of response - whether removal or lethal control.

Ironically, few wolf supporters have questioned this use of lethal control with regard to wolves, yet this is highly unusual in our approach to endangered species recovery. Yes the killing of a cow causes an economic loss to the rancher, but such losses can be compensated, or more importantly, avoided if proper husbandry practices were mandatory. Moreover, we don't allow logging companies to shoot spotted owls because they remove trees from the timber base available for cutting, despite a far greater economic impact upon timber companies and communities. Nor do we allow commercial fishermen to kill bald eagles or marine mammals that are eating salmon or other fish. Yet far too many accept the notion that ranchers have a right to kill wolves for livestock depredation.

Even if we could win some concessions from livestock operators to minimize predator opportunity through herders and nighttime penning and other measures, it's important to recognize that the mere presence of livestock still creates conflicts. Many prey species like elk avoid areas actively being grazed by domestic livestock, and are displaced. When wolves are tied down with pups they cannot follow displaced prey easily, creating a hardship upon wolves attempting to feed their young - and indirectly creating a situation that may lead to livestock depredation. Thus even so called "predator friendly" livestock operations pose a problem for predators like wolves even if the predators are not directly killed.

Without changing livestock operations, l have serious doubts that substantive wolf recovery across the landscape can or will occur. Unless livestock are removed from a large part of the land base (such as eliminating them from all public lands) or at a minimum demanding a change in the way livestock operations are conducted, I find it difficult to imagine a future where wolves are commonplace across the country. Currently livestock producers are externalizing one of the real costs of their operations - preventing predator opportunity. This cost is being borne by the rest of us that want wolves, and more importantly, upon the land that needs and requires that we restore wolf predation as a major evolutionary force.

We may need to rethink wolf restoration. The wolf is a highly adaptive animal. The assumption that they require wilderness is false. They have been relegated to these areas because humans have refused to change their behavior to allow for wolf coexistence. Indeed, wolves survive fairly well in close proximity to humans in Europe and elsewhere. Give them some protection from persecution; as long as there is sufficient prey, they can live among us.

Indeed, I think wolf recovery might be more successful if we focused more on bringing wolves back to the edges of our cities rather than putting them among rural communities. After all there is far more support for wolves hence tolerance among urban dwellers than among rural residents. I'm not suggesting that wolves be placed in Central Park, but within a reasonable distance of our major urban areas there is an abundance of prey, and enough woodlands and forest to provide some habitat fragmented though it may be. I believe wolves might prosper better in western Massachusetts than in northern Maine. Right now in Massachusetts, there are few farms, and deer are so plentiful that hunters can kill a dozen or more a year.

Similar situations exist in many other parts of the country. They may well do better in southern New York than in the Adirondacks. Maybe they should be restored to the national forest lands outside of Portland and Denver rather than in the "wilder" parts of these states like Oregon's Blue Mountains or Colorado's San Juan Mountains. The real factor that seems to determine wolf success is not roads per square mile, but rednecks/cows per square mile. With few farms and ranches, and fewer rednecks, maybe wolves will experience a higher survival rate in our more urbanized regions than they do now in rural areas. Give wolves half a chance, and we can restore them as a major evolutionary force but only if we are willing to challenge the assumptions and attitudes that are jeopardizing wolf recovery today. If we are going to recover the wolf, we need to learn how to live with the wolf, not merely relegate it to a few "reservations" we call national parks.

George Wuerthner is a writer, photographer and biologist living in Eugene, Oregon.