As The Reality of Wolves Sinks In – Has The Tide of Public Acceptance & Legislation Changed?
Public tolerance for the growing number of wolf packs and the overall wolf population is now diminishing quickly in the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and likewise in the Upper Midwest states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Residents of these states, especially in the local areas where wolves have been allowed to increase in numbers and range are now beginning to see an entirely different behavioral trend than predicted by state and federal wildlife agencies, and from environmental and animal rights groups. They are also now seeing far greater damage being done to other wildlife populations and greater threats to human safety than wolf experts once claimed would happen.
In the West, wolves have destroyed much of the past 75 years of sound wildlife conservation, nearly wiping out elk herds in many areas of western Montana and the northern half of Idaho. In many of these hard hit areas, elk numbers have been pulled down by as much as 80-percent, and continue to crash even further as wolves continue to destroy calf numbers by more than 90-percent before those elk reach 1-year of age. And due to that loss of calf recruitment, elk herds are growing older with each passing year. Where the average age was once 4 years, it is now 8 to 9 years – and these elk are quickly approaching an age where they can no longer reproduce. Even Yellowstone’s famous northern herd has been reduced from around 19,000 in 1995-1996, to less than 5,000 today.
In 1995, under the directives of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kicked off its Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Project, returning wolves into an ecosystem where they had been absent for more than 75 years. That in itself sparked a landslide of controversy, but not nearly as much as what has come to light and what has happened since.
As game populations quickly began to decline, and more residents began to scrutinize the manner in which non-native and non-endangered Canadian wolves were used to replace the wolf that was native here…and how the USFWS Environmental Impact Statement filed for this project more and more proved to be filled with false claims and what appeared to be outright lies…plus how environmental groups began to milk the wolf issue as a very lucrative cash cow…and how legal wrangling by these same green organizations continued to push the project recovery goals for ever growing wolf numbers and expanded range, public sentiment toward wolves made a sharp turn around. The wolves that Americans began to witness were nothing like the wolves they were promised.
In 2009, there was a glimmer of hope that wolf populations in the Northern Rockies would finally see some reduction. Wolf management hunts were conducted in Idaho and Montana, thanks to wolf management plans that had the USFWS seal of approval. And they gave those plans their okay only due to the fact that the management of wolves in these two states would allow the continued expansion and dispersal of wolves to anywhere else in those states – which really did not set well with sportsmen, who have footed the bill for wildlife conservation.
Wyoming was denied a management hunt, since there they have established a specific “wolf zone”, which encompasses Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area – where wolves would be managed to meet the recovery number as outlined by USFWS at the outset of what was deemed an “experimental, non-essential” project. That number was a minimum of 100 wolves, with at least 10 breeding pairs. In the remaining 80-percent of the state, wolves could be treated as a predator, and could be shot on sight.
And that did not set well with environmental groups. They rejected Wyoming’s management plan – even though the state had 3 to 4 times the number of wolves as outlined in the recovery plan. This past August, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy, of Missoula, MT halted plans for any 2010 management hunts in any of the Northern Rockies states due to Wyoming’s unacceptable wolf management plan – making the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish a very popular target of criticism from the wildlife agencies in Idaho and Montana. They blamed Wyoming for their loss of wolf management hunt opportunities, and that the state’s plan, these agencies deemed flawed, had to be more like the plans of Idaho and Montana.
On November 18, U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson, of Cheyenne, WY ruled that the USFWS had no reason to reject Wyoming’s Wolf Management Plan. He said the federal agency was wrong to insist that the state agree to change its management plan to give wolves more protection before it would end federal oversight for wolves. Ironically, it was USFWS which helped Wyoming draft its revised (2008) wolf management plan, and the federal agency approved that plan – until it came under criticism by Judge Molloy during a lawsuit in 2009. That lawsuit was filed by more than a dozen environmental organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity. USFWS turned around and then rejected Wyoming’s plan.
Judge Johnson’s decision goes against Judge Molloy’s ruling…goes against a flip-flopping USFWS…and goes against the harsh criticism of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game…and definitely challenges the claims of environmental groups.
During all of this legal wrangling, wolves continue to devastate big game herds in the West, and are now making a very negative impact on deer and moose populations in the north-central areas of the Midwest, where no management hunts have ever been allowed. Likewise, as wildlife populations are depleted even more, livestock becomes more and more on a wolf’s menu. The rate of wolf depredation of cattle, sheep and horses has shown a sharp incline over the past year – both in the Northern Rockies and in the Upper Midwest.
A more serious threat to humans has also began to emerge. As wolves, under strict federal protection as an “endangered species”, have become more and more habituated, they have lost all fear of humans – and they are now constantly testing their boundaries. Recently, USFWS set its sights on totally eliminating the Bear Bluff pack near Black River Falls in Jackson County, Wisconsin due to such habituation.
Adrian Wydeven, a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources commented, “They were showing a lack of fear toward people, were approaching people, and approaching buildings with people.”
Residents of the area became intolerant of wolves coming right into yards, and even into city limits – in broad daylight, while human inhabitants were nearby. While no humans were harmed, the wolves had lost all fear of them. Earlier this year, at least three pet dogs had been killed by the pack, and four others were injured. As of November 17, USFWS had killed six members of the pack, and were still pursuing the remaining two wolves. The Humane Society criticized the action, saying that there are ways to address human-wolf conflicts without reverting to lethal control. The Wisconsin Department of Natural resources claims that non-lethal efforts were attempted with the pack, but failed.
In Idaho this fall, wolves literally pursued elk and deer hunters as prey. Jason Smith, of Kimberly, ID, two hunting companions and their guide feel extremely fortunate to be alive after being hunted by either two different wolf packs, or one huge pack that had separated into two hunting parties. Hunting three different areas, each a mile or more apart, all three hunters and their guide found themselves surrounded by aggressive wolves that often moved to within 20 yards – despite gunfire to scare them away. And when the hunters retreated from the area, rallying along the way, the foursome was followed by the wolves all the way back to camp – and those wolves stayed near their camp, howling through the evening and well into the night.
Next door in Montana, while hunting elk in the northwestern mountains of the state, two other hunters also shared a very similar experience this fall. On the afternoon of October 29th, Mark Appleby managed to down a 6-point bull elk. Being nearly two hours from his truck, he field-dressed the animal, and quartered it so it would cool properly. The next morning, he and friend Raymond Pittman returned with pack horses to bring out the meat. While attempting to load the meat on the horses, a pack of 6 to 8 wolves charged in on them, and despite lots of shooting to run the wolves off, the brazen predators kept up their attack. One of the wolves was shot and killed, but the others still were not afraid. Appleby and Pittman were forced to leave the meat, and as they left the scene, the wolves continued to pursue them – again, despite shooting to try scaring the animals away.
There have been a number of other similar reports this year. The wolves are getting more and more habituated to humans, and no longer fear them. Many residents of western Montana and much of Idaho now feel it is only a matter of time before someone is killed by wolves in this part of the country. And their tolerance of wolves and the pro-wolf advocates who feel there needs to be many more wolves on the landscape is at end.
Still another impending threat are all of the diseases and parasites carried and spread by wolves, including rabies and cystic hydatid disease – which can prove fatal to animals and humans. Perhaps wolf advocates and staunch environmentalists seeking a return to pre-Columbian life are ready and willing to accept all the negatives of having to live with a widely dispersed wolf population across this country, the vast majority of Americans are not.
Currently there are two pieces of U.S. legislation pending that could result in fully returning wolf management back to the individual states. One, H.R. 6028, has been co-sponsored by U.S. Representative Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and by U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg (R-Montana). The other is S.B. 3919, co-sponsored by Senator Orin Hatch (R-Utah), Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Senator John Brasso (R-Wyoming). While worded slightly different, each of these bills are aimed at removing the gray wolf from protection of the Endangered Species Act. Many Americans feel that the ESA has outlived its effectiveness and need, especially when it comes to wolves. The biggest proponents of maintaining ESA protection for wolves are the environmental groups who continue to keep hundreds of issues tied up in court every year – which many now realize has become a major source of income for these groups and organizations.
Through this past decade, they have banked around $5-billion U.S. taxpayer dollars from the lawsuits they’ve filed. Much of that money was awarded them as reimbursement for the legal fees claimed by these “not for profit” organizations, and many Americans now feel they are grossly padding the amounts they claim.
The biggest opponents of allowing the wolf to continue enjoying federal protection under the ESA are the many sportsmen groups and organizations across the country. One, which has been recently launched just to fight this issue, is Big Game Forever, based out of Utah. Currently they are working hard to build support for H.R. 6028 and S.B. 3919. (www.biggameforever.com) Another is the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, headquartered in Missoula, MT – smack dab in the center of where wolves are currently destroying big game herds. (www.rmef.org)
David Allen, C.E.O. of RMEF, states, “We feel that a Congressional solution is the best way to ensure management of wolves by the State of Montana and all other states across the country and puts an end to the one-sided litigation. We support the bi-partisan effort of the U.S. House of Representatives – H.R. 6028, co-sponsored by Congressman Chet Edwards (D-Texas) and Congressman Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), which provides a common-sense approach to this issue. We also support a version of the House bill that has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, S.B. 3919.”
In regard to a coalition of sportsmen groups, agricultural groups, and landowners that has been formed to seek a firm, permanent resolution to this issue, Allen added, “We fundamentally believe that it is the states that should manage wildlife, not the federal government. It is our intention to seek a remedy that will address the wolf issue for all states, anything short of that will only result in more litigation and more expense for the taxpayers. It is time that the real science and true state management process determine how all wildlife is managed in this country.”