Wolves in the Rockies
Lock and load
Aug 13th 2011 | SEATTLE |
Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government reintroduced wolves to the Rocky Mountain West in the mid-1990s, reversing the efforts of ranchers and farmers who had spent decades killing them with guns, traps and poison. Wolf numbers have since increased far beyond the original goals, to an estimated 1,700 in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. In the process, returning wolves have become more than just an unwelcome varmint. To many, they are a snaggletoothed symbol of big government gone mad.
No state is more riled than Idaho, a conservative stronghold where Republicans have overwhelming control of the legislature and hold every statewide elective office. At a hearing in late July, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission took decisive action. It authorised a hunting and trapping season that could kill up to 85% of the 1,000 wolves believed to be sniffing around the state. In Montana, hunters will be allowed to kill 220 out of the state’s estimated 566 wolves.
For all the hoo-ha, evidence to justify Idaho’s lupine anxiety is underwhelming. America’s Fish and Wildlife Service says there have been no wolf attacks on people in Idaho, nor anywhere in the continental United States, since the grey wolf was reintroduced. The number of wolf attacks on Idaho’s 2.2m cattle has been low. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Service, there were 75 confirmed kills in 2010, giving a typical Idaho cow a .0034% chance per year of being eaten by a wolf. (Idaho ranchers claim that last year that wolves killed about 2,600 cattle, though experts doubt this.) Nor, with a couple of exceptions, have elk herds been threatened. “There is no wolf disaster,” says Carter Niemeyer, a biologist who for six years was in charge of the federal wolf-recovery effort in Idaho. “The only disaster is the overreacting politicians.”
Yet it is state politicians, not federal biologists, who now control the fate of wolves. This is because earlier this year Congress intervened directly in the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. In a rider to a budget bill championed by a Republican representative from Idaho and a Democratic senator from Montana, Congress decided that wolves in the two states no longer needed federal protection. Congress also ordered that no court could review its decision. Environmental groups are challenging this in the courts; a federal judge found in favour of Congress on August 5th, though his decision is now being appealed. Nervous times for the toothy ones.