Packs Americana

As wolves return to state control, emotions still run high among their fans and fervent enemies. How long will the fur keep flying?


Maybe I was naive, but I once thought a story about wolves was just a story about wolves.

That was up until the point that the leader of an anti-wolf organization in Wyoming threatened to take out a full-page ad declaring me a wolf sympathizer who wrote blatant lies, in an attempt to get me fired.

My offense? I spoke to—and quoted—pro-wolf groups.

The ad never ran. My editors stood behind me. But I received a vivid personal lesson that, when it comes to wolves, there are no neutral feelings. During more than four years working as a reporter in Jackson Hole, Wyo., I learned that few issues polarized people more than wolves—not mountain lions, not even grizzly bears.

To some people, wolves are Satan’s minions, loosed upon the earth to wreak havoc, death and destruction. Others see them as enlightened creatures, transcending earthly bonds to help humans on their spiritual quests.

The mundane truth lies somewhere in between. But as the gray wolf is removed from the federal Endangered Species List and comes under state control, finding that middle ground may well prove the greatest challenge for wildlife managers and locals alike.

On Feb. 21, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the gray wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains had exceeded its recovery goal and no longer needed federal protections. As a result, the agency removed the animals from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. By the end of March, individual states will take over the task of wolf management.

The historic delisting affects not only Idaho but also Montana, Wyoming, the eastern one-third of both Oregon and Washington and the northeastern corner of Utah. It will mark the culmination of a tempestuous reintroduction process—and the end of a long road for Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife. Bangs left Alaska 20 years ago to take over the recovery efforts in the Intermountain West. He has a clearer understanding than most about the emotions behind the issue.

“Wolves and wolf management have nothing to do with reality,” Bangs says from his office in Helena, Mont. “It has to do with people’s perceptions.

“When you think about it, mountain lions are a pain in the butt,” Bangs says. And yet the big cats have never inspired a similar ruckus. “There are more than 30,000 mountain lions in the Intermountain West,” Bangs says, “and no one argues about getting rid of all [of them].”

From “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” to the legend of Romulus and Remus—a story of twin infant brothers who were saved by a female wolf—tales of the big bad canis lupus are rooted in nearly every culture. Consider, for one, the phrase “crying wolf”—raising alarm by drawing on people’s worst fears.

Those fears were voiced loudest in 1995 and 1996, when the experimental wolf reintroduction program began in Yellowstone National Park and select other areas. During that time, 35 wolves from Canada were released into Idaho’s wilderness. (For more information about wolves in Montana, see sidebar, “Montana’s Wolf Reality Doesn’t Bite.”) Since then, the Idaho population has grown to roughly 713 known wolves, divided into 83 packs with 43 breeding pairs.

The success of the wolf recovery program is evident throughout the Intermountain West. The 66 wolves originally released in the region have multiplied to roughly 1,500 animals now scattered across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

For the past 12 years, federal policy has been guiding the recovery efforts, but wildlife agencies in Idaho and Montana have been taking an increasing share of the responsibility since wolves neared recovery benchmarks early in the decade.

The biological management of the wolves has been “a piece of cake,” Bangs says. “But socially, that’s the hardest,” he adds. “Most of it is not about real things—it’s about what people think wolves are. Getting facts out to people is very difficult with wolf issues because people don’t want to believe them. They want to believe wolves are either the spawn of Satan or God’s chosen few.”

His Idaho counterpart agrees. “A lot of people don’t think the wolf population should be managed at all,” says Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for Idaho Fish and Game. “Others don’t think we should have wolves at all in the state.”

As part of the delisting process, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming had to prepare comprehensive plans, outlining everything from conservation to conflict management. This is where the nuts and bolts become the day-to-day reality of wolf management. Idaho got its plan approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has gradually taken over much of the daily management of the species since then.

Under the state plan, Idaho will maintain no fewer than 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs—more than the 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs originally called for in the federal recovery plan. Wolves will be classified as big game, and limited hunting will be allowed, depending on population size.

Nadeau says statewide quotas will be divided among hunting units, based on population objectives in each area. That means the state will allow the most intense hunting of wolves in areas that have a history of the most frequent conflicts. If delisting happens on schedule, Nadeau says Idaho’s first legal wolf hunt could happen as early as this fall.

Of course, the proposed hunt has already grabbed national headlines. Barely a year has passed since Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter uttered the now-famous declaration: “I’m prepared to bid for the first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” Coverage of the inflammatory remarks got people riled up on both sides of the issue. “Butch Otter is a rabid dog,” wrote one letter-writer to Outside magazine.

The hunting aspect of the plan has been the most controversial for those who oppose delisting in the first place.

“The state plans would turn back the clock to allow massive killing of wolves,” says Suzanne Stone, wolf conservation specialist for the Northern Rockies region of Defenders of Wildlife. Stone says she fears the state will attempt to bring the wolf population down to the minimum of 150, despite promises from Nadeau and other officials that the number will remain much closer to what it is today, or about 700.

“That’s the floor, and we don’t ever want to reach the floor,” Nadeau says of the 150-wolf mark.

Stone still isn’t buying it. “Even if Idaho Fish and Game might want to maintain a higher population, the State Legislature adopted the plan, and their authority supersedes the department,” she says.

For a better model of how to get wolves off the endangered list and into state hands, Stone points to Minnesota. In that state, the western Great Lakes wolf population was taken off the Endangered Species List a year ago. The area is home to roughly 2,500 wolves, but the state has called for a five-year hunting moratorium to get a handle on conservation issues.

Stone was a member of a committee that provided early feedback on Idaho’s management plan. From where she sat, it seemed like state officials were more interested in the number of wolves that could be killed than in preserving the species.

“We didn’t bring wolves back just to have them persecuted and killed down to the levels they’re proposing,” she says.

From the beginning, wolves have come with some pretty heavy social baggage. Hunters feared the animals would decimate game species, especially elk, deer and moose, while ranchers worried that their sheep and cattle would become moving buffet lines for hungry packs.

For ranchers, learning to live with wolves has required a steep learning curve. The greatest risk to their livestock comes when cattle and sheep are moved to summer pastures, often on assigned public grazing allotments. While Stone says only 10 percent of ranchers in Idaho have conflicts with wolves, 1 percent of them suffer chronic losses.

Since the start of the recovery effort, Defenders of Wildlife has offered reimbursement for livestock killed by wolves. The group has worked with ranchers across the West, providing financial assistance and finding non-lethal strategies to deal with packs.

They started by looking for ways to keep wolves away from livestock. The privately funded organization has helped cover the costs of things like hiring additional range riders, buying guard dogs, and installing fencing, lighting and even alarm systems. Last year, Stone’s group spent $80,000 on these types of systems.

In 2007, Defenders of Wildlife paid out $984,474 for wolf-related livestock deaths in five Western states. They spent $254,610 on Idaho ranchers alone, paying for the deaths of 192 head of cattle and 982 sheep. Stone says her organization pays 100 percent of the market value for animals confirmed killed by wolves, and 50 percent of those likely killed by wolves.

But the end of federal protection also means the end of the Defenders of Wildlife reparations. It will now be up to the individual states to fork over the money for livestock lost to wolves (The proposition isn’t unique—Idaho, for example, already has a program in place for animals killed by bears and mountain lions).

Nadeau says the state is prepared to take on the costs, but the payment levels have yet to be determined. In the meantime, the Idaho Legislature took a different step to help ranchers and made it legal to shoot a wolf that’s harassing livestock (something that had already been allowed under federal protection).

In addition, Fish and Wildlife hunters each year take what is known as an “agency control action” and kill roughly 10 percent of the wolf population due to conflicts with livestock, Bangs says. To date, agency hunters have killed 724 wolves.

Illegal hunters kill an additional 9 percent of the population each year. Still, the overall number of wolves is increasing by 24 percent annually, Bangs says.

“Most ranchers are the biggest fans of wildlife,” Bangs says. “What I’ve heard is ‘wolves are beautiful, I just don’t want them eating all my cows.’ It’s a manageable situation unless you’re the guy who keeps having problems all the time,” he notes. “Wolf depredation is small overall, but to a few individuals, it’s a huge thing.”

Ranchers aren’t the only ones concerned about what wolves are snacking on. Since the species was first brought back to the Northern Rockies, hunters have decried the loss of their prized game species, some going so far as to say that the wolves would kill just about everything in the forest.

The field-and-stream apocalypse has yet to manifest itself. “Wolves are efficient hunters, but they do not eradicate their prey species,” Stone says. “If they did, it would be suicide.”

Still, wolves are making their presence known, Nadeau notes. “Wolves are not benign,” he says. “Wolf populations can have impacts, in localized areas especially.”

Hunters and state officials pay particular attention to elk populations. While Nadeau says Fish and Game officials are seeing lower-than-expected numbers in some areas of the state, the overall elk population has increased in recent years.

“All the rhetoric of things being devastated is not true,” Bangs says.

The areas with declining elk herds are typically experiencing a combination of factors: drought, hard winters, loss of habitat, and additional predation by animals like black bears and mountain lions, Nadeau says.

In the meantime, many of those in the outfitting and guiding business say they’ve made their peace with the wolf situation, problematic as it might be.

“We understand the wolves are there to stay, and we support the delisting of wolves so that the state can get on with the business of management,” says Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, representing 250 boating, hunting and fishing guides.

The challenge for outfitters, Simonds says, is dealing with how the state assigns turf for their business operations. “You can’t just pick up and move your business because you’ve got three wolf packs that operate in the same area,” he says.

Wolves have also changed traditional migration and feeding patterns, making it more difficult for hunters to find both deer and elk, he says. Simonds doesn’t dispute Fish and Game’s claim that the overall population of deer and elk has increased, but he says the animals are moving to areas where they haven’t been before.

“Repeat business is a staple of a successful outfitter business,” he notes. “And that can quickly erode if an outfitter can’t locate elk because of a predator-prey situation.”

And while some guides in the Yellowstone National Park area have turned wolf-viewing trips into big business, Simonds says he sees only limited potential for similar success in Idaho. The state doesn’t have the same viewing opportunities that Yellowstone Park has, he says. It would take five wolf-viewing clients to equal the profits brought in by a single guided hunter, he believes, since hunters spend more time in the state and drop more cash on supplies, lodging and other amenities.

The wolf hunts will be a big draw for trophy hunters, but snagging the animals will get progressively tougher, he predicts. In a few years, “the wolves will get wise, and after that they’re going to be a difficult animal to hunt. Wolves are very smart and they’ll adapt quickly—just like the elk did.”

But Simonds, Nadeau and Bangs all believe opening a wolf hunt will probably have a surprising side effect—it will decrease the public’s animosity. In fact, Bangs says that outcome is “absolutely guaranteed.”

“The best thing that could ever happen to wolves is to fold them into that routine management that allows hunting,” he says. When wolves become “a normal animal that is not outside the normal realm,” he says, “that’s the program for success.”

In a recent Fish and Game survey of hunters, the overwhelming majority opposed having wolves in the state, but that result completely flipped when the opportunity to hunt them was suggested.

While it might be a draw, however, Nadeau agrees with Simonds. He says wolf hunting will never be a lucrative venture. “It’s always going to cost more than we’re going to get from them,” he says.

Even as wildlife managers are preparing for the official transfer of control, they’re readying themselves for the continual legacy of the wolf issue: lawsuits.

“We know there’s going to be litigation; there’s always litigation about wolf stuff,” Bangs says. “People become emotionally involved, and in our society, when that happens, you sue somebody.”

Stone is equally certain that lawsuits will soon be filed.

“[Conservation groups] have been telling the Wildlife Service that recovery goals and plans are not adequate to delist wolves,” she says. “It’s been falling on deaf ears.

“We have to start with a stronger management plan. There’s no way the federal government can delist with such a weak plan,” Stone says.

It’s up to the courts to issue an injunction to stop delisting, but Bangs and others don’t see that happening. Judges have already declined to order injunctions in cases against delisting in Minnesota.

Under the stipulations of the Endangered Species Act, meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to monitor the wolf population for five years, largely through annual reports submitted by the states. If the population drops below minimum levels for even one year in any state, the monitoring period will be automatically extended for an additional five years.

Bangs still believes delisting is the right thing to do. “The Endangered Species Act isn’t a success until the animal is delisted. That’s the goal from day one,” he says. “It’s taken a long time to get here, but it’s time to complete that circle.”

Regardless of who has control of wolves, or how many lawsuits are filed, the real battle may still be for public acceptance.

“This has to be done in partnerships,” Stone says. “We have to find that middle ground, because the extremes are tearing us apart.”

This article originally appeared in Boise Weekly.

Montana’s wolf reality doesn’t bite

Wary acceptance by foes replaces raised hackles

by Todd Wilkinson

Today in Montana there are roughly 420 gray wolves spread across the ebbing and flowing territories of about 73 packs. The animals roam across the wild western half of the state—an area that could fit a couple of New Englands neatly inside it.

That’s 400 more wolves, 71 more wolf packs, and a wolf presence radically greater than in 1987, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its revised conservation strategy for restoring canis lupus to a mostly wolf-less American West.

People in the Treasure State still speak passionately about these numbers—and the divisiveness over safeguarding versus controlling wolves still remains. But what some of the youngsters (and even old-timers) may fail to acknowledge is how far we’ve come, over the course of a single generation, in achieving recovery of a species that many said would never happen in our lifetimes.

Twenty years ago at a contentious public forum in Jackson Hole, Wyo., I interviewed Dillon sheep rancher Joe Helle, who was among a group hell-bent on blockading the reintroduction of wolves. Helle, stoic and salt of the earth, predicted that if lobos were ever brought back to Montana, they would leave behind a bloody trail of dead cattle, sheep and family pets. Ranching families like his, he said with certainty, would be run out of business and people would fear for their lives. A “shoot, shovel and shut-up” campaign would wipe out any wolves ushered back by the feds, Helle’s colleagues promised.

At the same gathering, an equally likeable William Penn Mott Jr., a Ronald Reagan appointee serving as director of the National Park Service, said he supported reintroducing wolves into their vacant native habitat because, following their annihilation decades earlier by humans, “it was the right thing to do.”

Science mattered little in those days; it was provincial politics, manifested as an ongoing expression of cowboy culture, that ruled the day. But in 1992 Bill Clinton became president, Democrat Pat Williams beat out wolf foe Ron Marlenee for Montana’s sole U.S. congressional seat, and plans got a new start. Today, the wolf’s numbers and range have expanded beyond everyone’s imagination.

For Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northern Rocky Mountain wolf recovery coordinator based in Helena, it’s mission accomplished.

“No farming and ranching families have been run out of business by wolves,” Bangs says. “There may be some areas where wolf predation along with drought and other factors is having an impact on wildlife, but for the most part big game numbers are vibrant and healthy.”

As part of the agreement for handing federal management of wolves over to the states, Montana wildlife officials have agreed to maintain at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. The plan is a good one, says Bangs, who—despite being threatened, booed, and insulted at hundreds of public forums across the West—has always maintained two convictions. The actual impact of wolves would pale in comparison to the hysteria, he believed. And the Endangered Species Act would allow problem wolves to be dealt with swiftly and often lethally.

Those two things have happened. And wolves have proved remarkably resilient. Killing them through managed sport hunts, trapping seasons, and livestock protection, may be unsavory to many, but Bangs says giving states the ability to control the numbers is a sign of success, not defeat.

“It’s important to stand behind the promises,” adds Missoula conservationist Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife, who notes that there’s been a long-standing commitment to delist the animals when recovery levels were achieved. “Montana has done such a better job than other states in approaching this on an even-handed basis,” Fischer says. “It’s because Montana has taken an approach of treating a wolf as it does with managing other large animals.”

The state expects to spend millions of dollars on wolf management in the coming years, including a fund to compensate ranchers for livestock losses.

And losses will happen. Just last week, the Billings Gazette featured a story about a wolf that killed five sheep in the Two Dot area. The reporting featured a bereaved ranch woman who described the perp as “vicious” and said “it killed just for fun.”

Numbers tell a less sensational story. Last year across Montana, wolves allegedly killed 600 sheep, according to the U.S. National Agricultural Statistics Service. About 11,700 sheep were lost to coyotes; 1,100 to foxes; 700 to bears; 400 to mountain lions; and 700 to domestic dogs. In short, wolves accounted for only 1 percent of sheep losses.

The wolf’s greatest enemy is “human attitudes that are not rooted in common sense,” as Bangs puts it. “Today in Montana, there are many, many people living with wolves around them and they don’t even realize it.”

Sheepman Helle isn’t one of them. Wolves have denned near his flocks and sometimes dined on them. But he says he’s been helped by an ESA provision that gave him authority to kill wolves caught in the act of predation. He praises Bangs and wildlife officials for swiftly intervening, at times killing entire packs.

“Wolves are back in the ecosystem and they are here to stay,” he says. Helle isn’t a wolf hater. He’s a pragmatist who merely wants to pass his operation on to his kids. “We’re still pretty busy just trying to make a living. All we ask is that, if we have a problem it gets taken care of immediately,” he says. “As the wolf population has increased we’ve all had to work together.”

Twenty years ago, even this seemed impossible.

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