Monday, October 15, 2018

Dreaming of a National Wolf Recovery Plan

The slaughter of wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington makes me wonder “How can this be?” It’s disappointing and frustrating to see hatred legalized, and I struggle to stay optimistic. One strategy I use is imagining what could be instead of dreading what is. With that in mind, here’s an idea—something that could be—that I write about each year: a national wolf recovery plan.

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Though each wolf state must have a federally approved wolf management plan, the federal government does not have an overarching plan. The feds have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with ensuring that gray wolf recovery meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Critics on both sides—those who want the wolf off the endangered species list and those who want the animal on it—criticize the agency. Litigation and legislation abound.

A while back, three scientists stepped away from that fray and studied the situation. Their journal paper, “A Framework for Envisioning Gray Wolf Recovery,” proposed an alternative to the mess we are mired in. The two-page proposal stuns me with its simplicity and main point: the U.S, Fish and Wildlife Service should develop a national wolf recovery plan that adheres to the ESA.

The scientists, John Vucetich, Jeremy Bruskotter, and Michael Nelson, believe wolf recovery is feasible in the Lower 48. They put it this way: “Wolves are one of the most adaptable mammals on the planet and can live where there is adequate food and where regulatory mechanisms limit the rate at which humans kill wolves.” In other words, if we don’t shoot, trap, or poison them, wolves will recover. 

Wolves will recover best, the scientists calculate, where fewer than 142 of us humans crowd each square kilometer. Their proposal includes a map pinpointing localities too thick with humans. These high-density areas freckle the Lower 48’s eastern half, but the western half has few. 

map by Vucetich, Bruskotter, Nelson

In addition to showing where wolves should not live, the map reveals where they could live, even if reintroduction was necessary to start. Three potential recovery areas reside in the wide open West. Another one is in the very northeast corner of the U.S, above the congestion of the BosNYWash megalopolis.

Of course, wherever wolves appear, some people will wail that the predators threaten humans. But the three scientists say that wolves present less danger “than any number of animal species that Americans encounter on a daily basis, including white-tailed deer, hogs, bees, and domestic dogs, to mention just a few.” (For more on this see my post, Should We Fear Wolves.)

I doubt that ranchers and their lobbyists—the noisy and powerful anti-wolf faction—believe that statement. The scientists do project that more wolves will kill more livestock. But they add, from “an industry perspective the economic losses attributable to wolves would be genuinely trivial.” They recommend compensating ranchers for losses—as programs now do in wolf states.

Their recovery plan answers a big question: How is recovery defined? The scientists chose a definition based on scholarship and case law: a species is recovered when it occupies much or most of its former range. This is a different definition than the one USFWS uses.

But even after a successful recovery, the authors don’t expect to find wolves everywhere the animals once roamed. Humans have so damaged some historic range that it can’t provide the needed prey and habitat. In other areas, humans present too much of a threat to wolves. However, even with wolves missing from some past range, wolf country would increase under a national wolf recovery plan.

Their proposal realistically imagines a small, vocal, and influential group insisting that Americans will not tolerate widespread recovery. But the scientists believe that wolves and humans can coexist, and “…if intolerance is a genuine threat to recovery, then according to federal law such threats must be mitigated before the wolf can be delisted.”

photo by Mary Strickroth

To me, that idea—that federal law requires reducing intolerance of wolves—is the cornerstone of a framework for envisioning wolf recovery. The danger for America’s wolves comes from our culture’s ingrained hatred of a competitive species—most conflicts, after all, arise over who gets to eat livestock or wild game first. That hatred arrived with Old World colonists and over the years took on an American twist. By the early 1900s, the U.S. Biological Survey—our nation’s first government wolf-killers—played up the lies and fantasies behind that hatred as a way of raising money for predator eradication. Once dollars flowed, they and their prodigy, Wildlife Services, almost emptied the Lower 48 of wolves. Even after seventy years with few wolves around, the hatred survived and today spawns vicious acts and intolerance by individuals and by state agencies. 

That hatred lurks behind the vow of some states to kill all wolves except the minimum number their federally approved plans require. Those plans don’t reduce wolf hatred; worse yet, they give the false impression that wolf recovery depends on the number of surviving breeding pairs. Numbers obscure the truth: we must transform our culture from one of wolf hatred to one of wolf respect.

A national wolf recovery plan must address the hatred and intolerance that threatens wolf recovery. It should include educational strategies to promote the value of wolves and change intolerance to—at the very least—begrudging acceptance. Now that’s something to hope for when times are tough.

You can read more about wolves and our relationship with them in Rick’s books. 

His award-winning Deep into Yellowstone and best-selling In the Temple of Wolves are available signed or unsigned on Amazon.  

His new book, The Wilds of Aging, is available signed or on Amazon

To read the report, Framework for Envisioning Gray Wolf Recovery (PDF): 

wolf photo public domain via NPS


  1. Powerful stuff, Rick! My favorite sentence: "The danger for America’s wolves comes from our culture’s ingrained hatred of a competitive species—most conflicts, after all, arise over who gets to eat livestock or wild game first." It doesn't get much better than that in informed opinion writing!