Friday, January 2, 2015

The State of the Wolves: 2014-2015

Yellowstone wolf 471F howling by Rick Lamplugh

The passage of the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act enabled wolves—one by one and year by year—to reclaim a smidgen of the territory stolen from them in the Lower 48 with guns, traps, poison, and fire. Just 13 years before ESA protection, the only wolf country left in the Lower 48 was Minnesota. But with federal protection wolves dispersed eastward to northern Wisconsin. Then Wisconsin wolves drifted further east to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, mingling there with wolves from Minnesota and Ontario. Twenty-five years after the ESA, descendants of wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho began dispersing into Montana, as did others from Canada. Some of Idaho’s wolves swam the Snake River and adopted Oregon. British Columbia wolves slipped across the border into Washington.

The state of wolves looked promising until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed them from the protection of the ESA, and the killing began. More than 3,500 wolves have been killed by hunting, trapping, and other means: 2,000 in the West and 1,500 in the Great Lakes.

The USFWS now faces pressure to delist wolves—end their ESA protection—nationwide, says Kierán Suckling, the Executive Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He recently wrote in an email, “If the government abandons wolves, the already horrendous slaughter will escalate and any chance of wolves returning to California, Utah, Colorado and the Northeast will be decimated. The tiny, fragile wolf population in the Pacific Northwest could be wiped out.”

Leda Huta, Executive Director of The Endangered Species Coalition, agrees and writes that In the coming months, “…we will continue to vigorously pressure Secretary [of the Interior] Jewell to cancel her misguided, anti-science plan to strip wolves of Endangered Species Act protections.”

Protecting wolves in 2015 will be a real legal and political battle. Trip Van Noppen, President of Earthjustice, reported late in 2014 “…the recent election left us saddled with one of the most environmentally hostile Congresses in history.” Earthjustice believes that gutting the Endangered Species Act is the real goal: “They want politicians, not scientists, to decide whether species are in danger.”

Such a move would be dire for wolves, other endangered plants and animals, and we humans that coexist with all of them.

One of first wolves released into Yellowstone. NPS


The most recent official wolf count for Montana showed 627 wolves at the end of 2013. 

Wolves are delisted from the ESA. Montana allows recreational hunting and significantly expanded the circumstances under which wolves can be slaughtered without a hunting license.

Kim Bean, a wolf advocate with Wolves of the Rockies, saw some progress in 2014. “I believe we made strides in having civil and constructive dialogue with conservation groups, ranchers, hunters, and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. Pro-wolf advocates such as Marc Cooke, President of Wolves of the Rockies, were invited to sit down at the table with these folks to discuss the future of wolves.”  

Bean notes another accomplishment:  Wolf advocates were able to get the quota reduced in a controversial hunting unit just outside Yellowstone National Park from four to three wolves. “This win was vital for the wolves that move in and out of [Yellowstone] into Gardiner Basin during elk migration in the fall and winter months.”

Bean says the biggest challenge wolf advocates face in Montana in 2015 will be dealing with the legislature that begins in January. “We are keeping a close eye on bills that are being drafted and introduced by the house and senate members. We need a lot of voices to battle these very biased and dangerous bills—the more voices we have, the louder we are, and the more fierce we are. Fighting the legislature is no easy task and believe me when I say it's grueling, thankless, painful work. Advocates walk away after three months feeling like they had been tied to a whipping post.”

Pups from Yellowstone's Mollie's pack. NPS

The most recent official wolf count for Wyoming showed 306 wolves at the end of 2013. 

When wolves were delisted from the ESA, Wyoming allowed year-round, unlimited killing of wolves in most of the state. But in September of 2014, a federal judge stripped Wyoming of its authority over wolf management and restored federal protections, ruling the state plan failed to guarantee that more than a bare minimum of wolves would be maintained.

Bean believes that the judge’s decision “…sends a great message to those in power that science is indeed necessary when discussing the management of wolves and other apex predators. It was a loud and firm call from wolf advocates around the country that we will not stop or lie down in the face of adversity. We will fight on until science based management, fair chase hunting and non-lethal deterrents in ranching are recognized and utilized on our wild landscape.” 

But Bean believes that legal victory brings yet another battle: “I believe the challenge in Wyoming will be to fight the backlash of Wyoming representatives wanting to answer the re-listing ruling with a rider that would give Wyoming power over the ESA in the state.”

Idaho wolf. Idaho Fish and Game

The most recent official wolf count for Idaho showed 659 wolves at the end of 2013. 

And those wolves are in trouble. Jamie Rappaport Clark, President of Defenders of Wildlife, wrote in an email that in Idaho “…extreme anti-wolf politicians have caused the deaths of more than 1,400 wolves since 2009 and made a mockery of wolf conservation.” 

Defenders wrote a letter to submit to Secretary of the Interior Jewell encouraging her to consider placing Idaho’s wolves back under ESA protection. The letter describes how Idaho officials are working hard to kill even more wolves. In 2014 Idaho’s Governor Otter signed a legislature-passed bill to establish a Wolf Control Board, which, if fully funded, will have at its disposal $2 million in taxpayer money to kill wolves in Idaho. Sponsors of this bill proclaimed that this legislation would enable the state to kill all but 100 to 150 wolves, the minimum number the state is required to maintain. Work to achieve their goal has begun: “The board recently announced that $225,000 was being paid to Wildlife Services [the taxpayer-funded federal agency that kills all types of wildlife—including endangered species—for all kinds of reasons] for lethal control of wolves to control livestock depredations, so work to achieve this goal has already begun. Furthermore, the Bureau of Land Management is considering issuing a permit to Idaho for Wildlife for a predator derby, including wolves, for a five-year period across millions of acres of public land.” The letter goes on to say that Idaho is “…undermining and reversing the recovery of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies, one of our nation's flagship wildlife conservation achievements.” 

If Idaho’s aggressive—and deadly—management continues, the number of wolves may fall as low as 100 and force a review to realist wolves under the protection of the ESA.

OR-1, Oregon's first collared wolf. ODFW

The most recent official wolf count for Oregon showed 64 wolves at the end of 2013. 

Rob Klavins, Northeast Oregon Field Coordinator with Oregon Wild, says that after a hard-fought legal settlement, Oregon's wolf recovery is back on track under the most progressive wolf plan in the country. “Though the plan is working for all but the most extreme voices, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is entertaining proposals to delist wolves, weaken the plan, and share specific collar location data with the livestock industry.”  For Klavins, “The biggest challenge for advocates is to get the majority of citizens who value wildlife to speak as loudly and regularly as those who fear wolves.”

Bob Ferris, Executive Director of Oregon-based Cascadia Wildlands says that the most exciting news for Oregon wolves in 2014 was “…that we saw the creation of a wolf pack in the state’s southern Cascades within 20 years of the first releases in Yellowstone and central Idaho.  That is remarkable and betters the pace many of us imagined two decades ago.” Ferris was involved with that reintroduction.

Ferris believes that the biggest challenge that wolves and advocates face in Oregon and elsewhere in 2015 is “…the anachronistic and undemocratic stranglehold continually maintained by livestock producers, trophy hunting interests and other natural resource exploiters on federal and state wildlife agencies.  This powerful minority hugely impacts everything from federal delisting, state management plans and recovery actions on all levels.  These are public resources owned by all and this dynamic has to change.” 

Pups from Washington's Lookout pack. WDFW

The most recent official wolf count for Washington showed 52 wolves at the end of 2013. 

Washington state flared into the newest battleground in the war against wolves. The state kills wolves that attack livestock, but does not allow hunting. Late in 2014, the alpha female of the Teanaway pack was illegally shot and killed, throwing that pack’s future into jeopardy. With so few wolves in the state, the suspected intentional killing of the alpha female is even more of a loss.

An anti-wolf group has begun paying for huge billboards filled with lies and propaganda intended to incite fear. The group would have people in Washington believe that young children will be attacked by wolves. Defenders of Wildlife has paid for nine billboards that show the truth: you are more likely to die from a lightning strike or in an ATV accident than from a wolf attack.

Defenders’ Rappaport Clark described how the state’s wolves ”…are being illegally killed as the hate-based claims become more and more farfetched. It’s a familiar tactic. Fuel old fears and prejudices to turn public opinion against wolves. Then, press for state wildlife rules that permit ‘kill first, ask questions later’ tactics against these magnificent animals.”

Two gray wolves. Wisconsin DNR
Great Lakes states

Just 13 years before the ESA protected them, the only wolf country left in the Lower 48 was Minnesota. The population was slow to rebound at first, but wolf numbers jumped as wolves dispersed to Wisconsin and Michigan.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials tried to remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species List in 2004, 2007, and 2009. The last two attempts were stopped by legal action from the Humane Society of the United States. Wolves were delisted from the ESA in 2012, putting the states back in charge. Minnesota and Wisconsin immediately legalized wolf hunting and held their first hunting seasons that year. Michigan passed a law allowing wolf hunting in 2013. More than 1,500 wolves have been killed in the Great Lakes states, according to the Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

In December, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the removal of the Great Lakes wolves from federal protection was "arbitrary and capricious" and violated the federal Endangered Species Act. The order—which affects Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—protects about 3,700 wolves.

Unless overturned, the decision will block the three states from scheduling additional hunting and trapping seasons for wolves. All three had at least one hunting season once ESA protections were lifted, while Minnesota and Wisconsin also allowed trapping. According to Leda Hula of the Endangered Species Coalition, “Wisconsin has ignored scientists that have questioned their monitoring and is the only state that allowed ‘hounding,’ or the use of dogs to pursue wolves, in addition to indiscriminate trapping and sport hunting,”

Rachel Tilseth, founder of Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin, says that the biggest victory in 2014 was the wolves being ordered back on the Endangered Species List, “thus putting and end to reckless trophy hunts on wolves.”

The challenge for 2015 is similar to that of Wyoming: “With Wisconsin wolves now under federal protections we see a great deal of anger from fringe wolf hunters that are making threats to continue killing wolves illegally, threats from disgruntled pro-wolf-hunt politicians to stop any wolf management by the state, fear mongering from Cattlemen's Associations, denial from Wisconsin Houndsmen, and scapegoating of wolves for killing all the deer, hound-hunting dogs and livestock.”

Here’s Tilseth’s recipe for successful coexistence: “Management of wolves must move forward with science and social and economic plans that protect the species and humans and teach how to coexist alongside of wild wolves. Education, dispelling myths, facts, predator-friendly methods, wolf ecotourism, are the building blocks needed in wolf management. And most of all opening dialogs between pro- and anti-wolf factions.”

Grand Canyon's lone wolf. Center for Biological Diversity
Arizona and Utah

DNA tests released in late 2014 confirmed that a wolf repeatedly photographed at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park was a female that began her journey in the northern Rocky Mountains.  The minimum straight-line distance from her home to Arizona’s Grand Canyon is about 450 miles, but she probably meandered even farther.

However, on December 30, 2014, Kierán Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity announced in an email that this dispersing wolf may have been gunned down in Utah—about 150 miles north of the Grand Canyon—by a hunter who claimed he mistook the wolf for a coyote. DNA testing may confirm the wolf’s identity. Suckling wrote, “It’s normal for younger wolves to leave their pack and set off looking for a new mate and new territory. But again and again—in Colorado and Iowa, in Washington and now Utah—these wolves have been gunned down in horrific cases of malice and mistaken identity.”

Suckling estimates that anti-wolf forces “…have influential friends like Utah's own Congressman Rob Bishop, the powerful new head of the House Natural Resources Committee, who has vowed to end protection for wolves from coast to coast -- making what happened near Beaver neither illegal nor rare. The government of Utah has even spent $800,000 on lobbyists to strip protection from wolves so they can be freely killed in the state. They don't want to learn to live peacefully with wolves. They want to destroy them.”

Yellowstone's Gibbon pack. NPS

Reinstating Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the Great Lakes region could have a profound impact on other areas of the United States that wolves don’t yet call home, according to wolf experts gathered by the Minnesota-based International Wolf Center. The experts said the court decision may bolster efforts that would see wolves return to places like western Colorado or the Dakotas.

Dave Hornoff, a long time advocate and founder of the Facebook page “The Wolf Advocate,” agrees and writes, “This also serves to encourage advocates to continue their fight in what will be endless battles to maintain wolves in a healthy population in all parts of the U.S. Sometimes it can be very discouraging but with positive news like this it helps many to stay focused and encourages others to join the fight.”

Given ESA protection and a best case scenario, what might happen?

The International Wolf Center has an online data base chock-full of wolf information. Below is their prediction of ten states (listed in alphabetical order) that may one day have resident wolf packs. Also listed is where those wolves may disperse from.

  1. California: wolves from Idaho, Washington, Oregon
  2. Colorado: from Idaho, Wyoming
  3. Maine: from Canada
  4. Nevada: from Idaho, Wyoming
  5. New Hampshire: from Canada
  6. New York: from Canada
  7. North Dakota: from Canada, Minnesota, Montana
  8. South Dakota: from Canada, Minnesota, Montana
  9. Utah: from Idaho, Wyoming
  10. Vermont: from Canada

Map produced by Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity produced this map showing the historic habitat (gray), current habitat (light green), and potential habitat (dark green) for gray wolves. They also released a first-of-its-kind analysis identifying 359,000 square miles of additional wolf habitat in the Lower 48 that could significantly boost wolf recovery. The study found that the gray wolf population could be doubled to around 10,000 by expanding recovery into areas researchers have identified as excellent habitat in the Northeast, West Coast and southern Rocky Mountains, as well as the Grand Canyon.

The map shows that some of the current wolf states—Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon—have room for more wolves. Still more exciting: there’s plenty of gray wolf habitat in new states such as those listed by the International Wolf Center.

Even if wolves filled these new areas and doubled their numbers, they would still occupy only a shadow of their original habitat: as many as two million wolves roamed much of North America when colonists arrived. As 2014 ends, wolves are by no means out of danger of being endangered. And with the political and legal battle evolving for 2015, the future of wolves in the Lower 48 is far from certain. 

Rick Lamplugh
is the author of
In the Temple of Wolves
More than 225 Five-Star reviews

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What Readers Say: “Watching wolves hunt elk, watching the slow death of a bison calf, dragging a road-killed yearling bison off to become food for a host of scavengers—these are not experiences for those who want to see Yellowstone in Disneyland terms. However, if you want to read about the real Yellowstone and participate in the author's occasional ambivalence about what one sees when immersed In the Temple of Wolves, this is the book for you.“ by D.B.

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