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Cry of the wolf

New census shows fragile wolf population



The new census of northwest Montana’s wolves shows declining numbers, and that casts doubt on the government’s contention that the population is robust enough to remove from federal protection as an endangered species.

In the annual count by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the region’s gray wolves numbered only 92 in 2003, down from 108 the year before. More importantly, only four pairs of wolves produced at least two pups that survived the year. The year before, 11 breeding pairs were counted.

Federal and state officials, who want wolves yanked off the endangered species list—or delisted, in the bureaucratic parlance—are playing down the latest census, insisting it isn’t indicative of a weak population. But independent wildlife experts say the numbers show that the recovery of wolves in the northern Rockies, while impressive, is still fragile. For that reason, many argue against stripping wolves of federal protections—the main one being a law against killing the animals just for fun.

Even conservationists who believe wolves can survive in the wild under less-protective state management say the latest numbers are a cause for concern.

“Four breeding pairs? That’s scary,” says Dan Pletscher, director of the wildlife biology program at the University of Montana.

Despite the new census, the Fish and Wildlife Service is pushing ahead with its attempt to delist wolves in the northern Rockies and put them under the control of the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Under pressure from ranchers, all these states are aiming to make wolves easier to kill. Wolves, in fact, would have already lost federal protections if not for Wyoming’s insistence on allowing the beleaguered animals to be shot on sight like skunks or jackrabbits when they roam outside Yellowstone or Grand Teton national parks.

Wyoming’s so-called management plan, the intent of which is apparently to “manage” wolves out of existence, was too outrageous for even Fish and Wildlife to accept, and the federal agency has been trying without success to persuade the state to adopt a more reasonable approach.

After a two-hour session with agency Director Steve Williams and aides on the issue this month in Cheyenne, Wyo., Gov. Dave Freudenthal issued this wry statement: “They seemed like nice enough fellows to meet with, but we didn’t get a lot done.”

Legislation was introduced in the current 20-day budget session of the Wyoming Legislature to try to satisfy Fish and Wildlife. But at last report, the bill had stalled, and odds are thought to be slight that it will pass.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association opposed the bill because it wouldn’t permit gunning down wolves from airplanes, killing wolf pups in their dens or blowing them up with M-44 explosives. (We’re not making this up.)

“We’re kind of at an impasse,” says state Sen. Keith Goodenough of Caspar. A self-described “hippie in a sea of rednecks,” Goodenough wants to accommodate Fish and Wildlife, but admits he doesn’t have many allies in Wyoming.

“These guys want to be able to shoot wolves anywhere, anytime,” he explains. “It’s a genetic holdover from their parents and grandparents. If they’re driving down the road to their ranch and they see a wolf, they think they should be able to hop out of their truck and blast it without facing any sanctions.”

What they don’t know is that if their legislators would merely adopt a management plan like Montana’s, which has been embraced by Fish and Wildlife, they could start blasting away.

Under Montana’s plan, which would govern wolves in our state if the animals are delisted, landowners could shoot wolves when they are “attacking, killing or threatening to kill livestock” or cattle dogs. That’s a pretty vague standard (how exactly does one determine with any certainty when a wolf is “threatening” one’s livestock?), and it’s likely that ranchers could just shoot wolves willy-nilly without legal consequences.

“We’re not out to prosecute anyone,” admits Carolyn Sime, the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks official who developed the management plan. “I guess what it boils down to is that people will be expected to be honest.” Right.

Under the original federal recovery plan, wolves in northwest Montana, central Idaho and the greater Yellowstone ecosystem were to maintain their protections as endangered species until there were 10 breeding pairs in each recovery area for three consecutive years.

Wildlife biologists considered it essential, especially, for northwest Montana’s wolves to do well because they provide a connection between the Yellowstone and Idaho populations and the more numerous wolves in Canada. That link is needed to promote genetic interchange among the various wolf populations, a key element for their long-term survival.

Wolves in Idaho and Yellowstone have thrived (640 were counted in the latest census). But with fewer open valleys in which to hunt prey and fewer elk to eat in the first place, northwest Montana’s wolves have never met their recovery goal. So the feds fixed that problem—they dropped the goal. And last March, they listed wolves not as endangered but merely as threatened, the first step in delisting the animals altogether.

A coalition of environmental groups has sued to return wolves to their endangered status. So even if Wyoming eventually changes its management plan, clearing the way for the delisting of wolves, the courts will probably decide the issue in the end.

“I have great concerns about wolves in northwest Montana,” says Renee Van Camp of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “Unless we maintain their protections, we cannot ensure the future of wolves in any respectable numbers.”

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